It felt like drowning, the water rushing over my mouth, choking off any oxygen, something heavier coating my face and concealing my eyes from the world's light. A hood? Yes, they must have covered my face. It would appear they had also gagged me and bound my hands. Total submission seemed to be their aim.
"Up!" The voice commanding me had a thick accent, though not Russian. "Right, this way then," my imperator demanded. Was I crazy, or was that a British accent?
I followed the tugs in a rope binding my hands. The sounds of desynchronized footfalls ahead and behind me combined with an overall pungency of the area told me I was in a line with a few other captives. None of them smelled too fresh. We marched as one unit with many legs for quite some time, navigating twisting corridors and stairs for what seemed like hours before the Brit spoke again.
"Mr. Juarez, block 576 reporting."
"Bien, back to your station, soldier." Spanish? This was getting weird. Hurried footsteps echoed down the hall as the Brit made his way back to wherever he had brought us from. Chair legs scraped the floor as Mr. Juarez stood from his desk, pacing along the line of captives. I heard a whipping of fabric, a few stifled grunts, and then a momentary silence.
"Well, this certainly won't do," came the voice of Juarez. A loud crack of gunfire rang out, causing many in the line to flinch. My resolve held, however I couldn't help but be a bit disturbed as I heard a body fall to the ground. Another sound of a hood being pulled, another moment's inspection, then another pistol round.
"No, no, no! All so weak, so injured, you captives! None of you will do." The man next to me whimpered in fear through his gag. Juarez did not even bother pulling his hood. As the bullet slammed through my fellow prisoner's chest, I felt a fine mist on my bear arms. Still my nerve held. I was determined not to let this maniac break me even as my brother in bonds slumped at my side, the life draining from his form. Juarez took three steps in my direction. Greasy fingers gripped my hood, ripping it, along with a few hairs, from my head. The dim yellow light of the room flooded my fully dilated eyes, blurring my vision for a moment. I picked one part of the blur dead ahead of me and fixed my eyes upon it. I would stare straight ahead and portray no signs of weakness. A grimy, thin face appeared from the blur. He sized me up, taking apparent interest.
"Finally! You will do, chico. Head through the green door way and proceed to sanitization. The rest of you, end of the line." He emptied his chamber on the remaining four prisoners in the line, nine in total. I doubt it was coincidence that he had to reload his weapon after killing eight prisoners. Eight bullets, nine candidates. One is chosen, the others are dealt with swiftly.
I made my way to the end of the tiny dirt room. There was a desk with boxes upon boxes of 45 caliber ammunition, as well as a messy stack of papers, a coat hung on the wall, a single hanging lamp and three doorways. The hallway that lead us to the room was dirt as well. One doorway was green, marked "Sanitization." The other was a red frame with no door, much wider than the other. A quick glance revealed a massive chamber filled with something that made my stomach writhe in disgust. I needn't say what was inside. Suffice it to say that as I left, two men hurled the newly deceased through the red doorway, and it didn't look as if mine was the first group to be judged.
I left the room as quickly as I could. It seemed that for now I was safe, my only remaining choice to obey my captors. The door led to a long, dimly lit dirt hallway. Was this whole place a tunnel system? Better yet, where am I? I trudged down the hall, the falling bombs still clearly audible on the surface. It would seem these invaders were processing their captives as they fought. This was efficiency in the sickest possible way. Ahead of me was another green door. I opened it and stepped through. On the other side was a queue of men, hands unbound. A guard at the door grabbed my wrists, cutting me free of my ties. His knife work was sloppy, and he sliced my wrist. I portrayed no pain as he snickered, clearly aware of the slip. This room was different, much larger than the others. White screens lined either wall to my left and white, small windows near the ceiling revealing armed troopers in gleaming white armor, their rifles trained on us prisoners below. I guess this type of supervision eliminated the need for bound hands. At the end of the line were various screened in areas, each taking one man at a time.
Hours passed as I slowly made my way to the front of the line. A constant stream of fresh captives made its way in behind me, replenishing the line as more and more were taken behind the screens. Two soldiers made their way to the next block of five captives, me included. They pushed us to the direction of our assigned screens. Hesitation gripped at my nerves and my legs suddenly froze. I had no idea what awaited me on the other side, no idea what they were going to do to me. Suddenly a thought occurred. Back pocket, something small. I reached into the pocket as secretively as I could. My fingers met something small, metallic. Familiar slots traced my fingertips. A chip? Impossible, I hadn't brought one with me, however this was my only chance. I snatched it from my pocket, then, disguising the motion as a head scratch, slipped the chip into the slot on the side of my head. Amazingly, it clicked, and all at once the visual displays flooded my sight. I navigated the interface as quickly as possible. All I had to do was find one function before they got me through the curtain, and I was home free. Finally, I found what I was looking for. Text appeared on my vision.
"Enter sleep mode?" I selected yes. All at once, my body went limp, my heart rate slowed to a stop. I felt myself grow colder.
"Beginning artificial metabolic function," read the display. This setting was designed for emergency situations in which the user would need to simulate death. Part of the special ops training was the installation of the program, as well as the necessary training to control your body from going into shock at the sudden halt of regular functions. The chip would bypass my heart, yet sustain my pulse and digestive system for as long as "sleep mode" was in effect. I don't know how the thing ended up in my pocket, but I silently thanked God, or whoever was watching over me, for this stroke of fortune.
"Looks like this one's no good. Take him to the red door." The commanding guard spoke with no genuine concern. Why should he care for these lower beings, these roaches?
I heard a commotion break out in the line behind me as the guards picked up my corpse, now losing its heat to the cold underground air. I heard someone struggling with their bonds, trying to cry out in opposition. As I was hoisted up, I got a clear view of my sympathizer. A mammoth of a man shook with rage, screaming his throat raw as he approached the nearest guard. His head was a quivering mass of black curls, two beady black eyes barely visible through his hair.
Bill grabbed hold of the nearest trooper, intent to tear him to pieces, however they were prepared for this. The guard reacted swiftly, incapacitating Bill with some sort of stun weapon. The brute fell limp instantly, yet the armed guards held their fire.
"This one's too valuable to put down," announced the trooper. "Process him in place of the scrawny blond kid. He'll be much more submissive once it's done." As they dragged me from the room, a team of men assembled to take Bill in my place behind the screen. I would never know what happened behind those screens, for which I believe myself quite fortunate.
The guards hauled me back down the hallway to the red doorway, hurling me into the sickening chamber that lay beyond the red doorway. The next hours stretched for what seemed like an eternity as I lay motionless in a growing mass of human decay. Some still lived, still writhed, helpless in the pit of the unfortunate. As the bombing ceased, so too did the inflow of corpses. This was my only opportunity. There was a small ventilation grate at the top of the room. I had to wait until I was absolutely certain the chamber was vacant of guards.
When I finally found my opportune moment, I rebooted my bodily systems. Slowly, the heat crept to my extremities. I said another silent prayer of thanks, including a blessing for those not so fortunate as I. I clawed my way to the top of the mound, creeping slowly towards the wall with the ventilation grill so as to not alert any guards. I carefully removed the grate and pulled myself inside. The shaft was tiny, a tight squeeze even for someone small like me. For someone Bill, such an escape would have been impossible. I would have to remember to come back for him. I crawled my way to freedom inch by inch through the tiny tunnel. The smell was putrid, every part of me ached, yet I knew I had to get out. If not for my own sake, I had to find help for my city, for those still inside this disgusting place. No more fear, no more running. I was on a mission. Opposing Cook's cause would be my motivation, not some foolish yearn for revenge. Now that I knew the true depths to which his faction would sink, whoever they may be, I understood that this was much bigger than I could have ever imagined. This surpassed my hardship, my mother's death, or the capture of those I held dear. Personal motives be damned, I had to stop Cook simply because it was the right thing to do. The pain of those behind me driving me on, I found my way to a hazy light streaking through another grate. I bashed through it and flopped out onto a dusty field.
Outside air exploded into my lungs. The air smelled of charcoal, thick with dust and grit, yet anything was better than the stench seeping out from that vile place behind me. I turned and wretched, only new processing the horrors I had just faced. My body was weary and I needed sleep more than anything. I rolled onto my back and let exhaustion overcome me. I hoped to slip into blackness and finally get some semblance of peace, yet strange dreams came, however uninvited they were.