Six Hundred Years
David winced and forced back the swollen flesh, peeling blackened skin across bloodshot eyeballs. The lids had swelled as the bruises blossomed and now only deliberate, painful effort could stop his eyes from closing completely. His vision, blurred as it was at the best of times, now drew in on all sides, and the edges of the room became unknown to him.
He could no longer see the other men. But they did not cease to exist, as he wished they might. Instead, they were shapeless entities, vague noises shifting and moving in the darkness beyond his perception. Like shades, moving beyond the veil; they were ghosts, these men who had yet to die. These men who had not yet fulfilled their purpose.
There were only three of them in the chamber. It was a long, low room with a riveted hatch pressed into one wall and rows of shuttered portholes running the length of another. Each surface was a patchwork of metal sheets, bolted together in a haphazard manner like a hastily-constructed submarine. The craft itself did not seem sea-worthy, and, as it began to move, the bolted sheets rattled, shifting against one another like tectonic plates.
Though the light in the cabin was dim, David could smell his fellow detainees cowering, as he did, in the darkness. The pervasive stench of gangrenous flesh and unwashed rags hung heavily in the air and David wondered if there might be thousands more aboard the shuttle, in other chambers just like this one. Men hidden in the wheel arches and crammed into the baggage decks, their pitiful screams muffled only by the sound of the engines.
More likely, the scent of fear had accumulated over the years, permeating the pores of the iron hull of the shuttle as it ferried its human cargo to the ultimate destination. After all, it was not a pleasure cruise. The health of the passengers was of low priority and there was no return journey. It was clear that the ship was not cleaned between flights. The stink of filth and ammonia mixed in the foetid air; the floor was slick with piss.
The hiss, low and loud and close to David's right ear, wretched him from his own thoughts and startled him so much that he cried out in shock.
“Shhh! Do you want those guards to come back?”
A European voice. Young and male. He couldn't have been more than twenty years old. Perhaps a freedom fighter? Or a defector, no longer willing to help the regime? The accent was British – a slight hint of West Midlands in his leaden vowels, but this had been heavily suppressed.
David thought, as the man spoke, that his words had a certain thickness to them, as if this detainee was struggling to talk through split lips.
“My friend, please. I wish to speak with you.”
They had tried this tactic before. David remained silent. He was nobody's friend. Not here.
He tried to lift his head, to get a better look at young terrorist from Birmingham, but the metal collar around his neck restricted his movement. His wrists and ankles had likewise been encircled in thick manacles, and great chains looped between them down to an iron ring which was bolted to the floor. The guards must have restrained him while he was unconscious, as he did not remember being shackled in this way at the compound. David felt the warm metal bite into his skin and angry red welts snarled beneath this unwanted jewellery. His every movement was punctuated by the dull metallic clank of chains.
A sudden, juddering movement caught David off balance and he stumbled, awkwardly shifting his weight to keep from falling. The shuttle was moving again. David was dimly aware of the nausea rising in his stomach, and he consciously fought the urge to vomit.
Above him, a porthole had been left uncovered, and its shutter flapped impotently with the motion of the ship. Though blurred, David could make out bursts of orange light striking through the darkness out there beyond the six inch plate glass. The light illuminated a thin strip of bolted metal on the floor of the chamber and flung stark shadows across the hatch in the far wall.
Even though he knew it to be a fact, David found it difficult to accept that the craft was travelling at twice the speed of light. His mind, like his body, was too bruised and broken to contemplate such a thing.
So instead, he focused on his breathing.
Shuttle sickness was common side effect on these flights. He had read that somewhere. The technology itself had never been refined; there was no call for it. Comfort was not the main purpose of the journey. Detainees did not deserve a comfortable ride.
In the darkness to his left, David heard the third detainee wretch violently. The smell of bile – that sharp scent of stomach acid, devoid of any nutrition – stung David's nostrils. The detainee sobbed and wretched and screamed. David turned his head away and rubbed at the flesh of his bare chest, massaging at the knot of fear that tangled around his lungs.
The detainee to his right had spoken again, his voice quivering with alarm.
“Where are they taking us?”
David did not answer. He knew where they were going. When they were going.
“Do you know where we're going?” A whispered question that felt more like a threat. “Do you know what's at the end of this journey?”
The chamber was quiet.
The third detainee began to sob again, to curse his mother and his Gods and to make pleas to the heavens for deliverance. But no matter how loud he shouted, his cries could not penetrate the thin metal skin of the ship's hull. His Gods and his mother could not hear him now. He was beyond deliverance.
David remained silent.
“Your resistance is not noble, you know.”
“There is no shame in confession. None at all. In the end, it may even save you from what's to come.I think we're almost there now. There's still time to stop this, David.”
And still, David remained silent.
The man changed tact: “Don't you want to see your wife again? If you tell them what you know, you could go home. You could see your family. You have a very pretty wife.”
He gave a laugh, short and sharp, devoid of warmth or mirth. Like the bark of a dog.
“We're not allowed to torture you any more. I'm sure you know that. I'm sure you read up about your rights. Sure, we can still rough you up a little bit, force you to stay awake for days, deny you food. But we can't torture you now, not really. In the years before, we would pay less reputable countries to do the torture for us. But now...”
He paused, and David felt a hand on his shoulder. A jolt of panic shot through him and he flinched like a wounded animal. The agent laughed his dog's bark laugh once more.
“No modern country has the facilities we need for persuasion. Lucky, then, that this particular technology is available. It's expensive, of course; the shuttles and capacitors are not cheap, but the process always yields the desired results.”
“Where are you taking me?”
His words were raw, rasping and barely audible now that the thrusters had kicked into overdrive. David felt a shift as the agent rose from the floor beside him.
There was no metallic clank of chains.
The man lifted David's chin with his index finger; it was as powerful as a coiled spring. David stared into the agent's pale face. A livid red cut ran diagonally across the man's bottom lip, like a line drawn in the sand. The agent talked slowly and deliberately, navigating the scar as spoke. His narrow eyes radiated cruelty and contempt.
After careful contemplation of David's features, the agent sighed.
“Well,” he said, pulling his hand away from his victim and turning towards the escape hatch. “Don't let it be said that you were not warned. I'm sure you will find Vlad Dracul to be a most receptive host. Once we land, you and you friends will be relinquished into his care. You will not survive the ordeal. Goodbye David.”
The man with the slip lip opened the hatch and slipped out of the room. Darkness closed in once more and David felt the ship slow to a halt. He was six hundred years from home. Not even the Geneva Convention could save him now.