To say I felt like ass when I woke up was kind of like saying that Godzilla was an itty bitty-lizard. My mouth tasted like something had crawled in there to die of amoebic dysentery, and my head and stomach were in loud agreement that this could quite possibly a worse hangover than the time Quatre and I had decided that splitting a fifth of rum on an empty stomach would be a great idea.
And I hadn't even opened my eyes yet. And you know what? I really didn't want to, either.
I was laying face down on metal decking of some sort, and that was never a good sign. It felt like I'd gotten there non-too-gently. I was one massive bruise, and my nose felt stiff and swollen, so there was a good chance I'd bled all over the place too. Cautiously, I cracked an eye open. It was pretty dark out there; I had enough light to sit by, but only barely. Not that I was complaining, since bright light would have caused my head to pop like an overripe grape.
I attempted to sit up, focusing on the gunmetal grey floor so my stomach wouldn't get any more upset. Except it didn't work quite like I was trying for; my muscles weren't listening too well to my brain. As an added bonus, it was like someone had suddenly shoved the strength of the Incredible Hulk into me. I flung myself backwards and hit a set of solid metal bars behind me, hard enough that I swear my teeth rattled. "Ow...Fuck!"
Just when you thought your day couldn't suck any more...
"Take your time, don't try to move fast. You'll hurt yourself." A man said. His voice was deep and probably would have been pretty sexy if he hadn't sounded like he'd been doing a lot of screaming recently.
For once in my life, I took advice and turned slowly, until I was facing the metal bars I'd hit. From what I could see, I was stuck in a glorified birdcage made of stainless steel bars thicker than my arm. There was another cage opposite me, where the man who had spoken leaned back against the cage with his arms rested on his bent knees. He was gaunt and pale; I could count all of his ribs, though he also still had some decent muscle standing out on his arms. His only nod to decency was a pair of incredibly ragged and dirty shorts that at some point may have been white pants.
And below...nothing. The cages hung from a ceiling lost in the darkness by means of thick chains, and if there was a floor, I sure as hell couldn't see it. "Oh shit..." I said. No words I knew could really describe it.
"You'll get...used to it eventually. I seem to have," the man said. He sounded almost cheerful.
I turned my head carefully. There was another cage nearby. It was empty. "Where's Wufei?" I demanded.
"Probably still in the lab. He must have been more interesting than you. They'll bring him here eventually if they don't outright kill him."
"How? How can you be so certain?" I grabbed the bars, since I didn't have long enough arms to grab him, which was what I really wanted to do.
He turned to look at me. He had long, blonde hair that would have been beautiful if it had been well cared for. It hung in ragged, stringy locks over his face. "I've been through it myself, several times. And there have been others. Yasahiro, Miki, Tomoyo, Gloria, Nevin, and Mike, who delivered pizza to the wrong building." He smiled, and it was an almost painful expression. "I hope you stick around. Most of the company I get disappears quickly."
"You're not giving me much hope here, buddy." I pressed my face against the bars. They were cold, which was rather soothing to the headache.
"Hope dies," he said. "That's about all I can remember any more."
"Wow, I think you just beat out Heero on the pessimism department."
"Nothing, just talking to myself. You have a name, Mr. Cheerful?" I couldn't help but glance over at the empty cage. Damnit, where did they have Wufei?
It seemed to take him a couple minutes to remember it. "Milliard. That's my name. Milliard."
"Yeah, you have been here for a while," I said, pulling my mouth into a smile I didn't feel.
"So it would seem."
"It's bad when you've been alone long enough that you have a hard time remembering who you are. Try talking to yourself. I swear, it helps."
I shifted, and the exaggerated movement made me slam my head against the bars. "Mother fucking..."
"Like I said, keep your movements slow. You'll get used to it, and at first it'll even fade a little. At least until the next round."
"I don't understand, Milliard. What are you talking about?"
"The drugs." He examined his arm for a moment as if it were fascinating. "I'm not quite certain what they are, or what their intention is, but yes... the drugs."
I rubbed my own arm. There was a tender spot where they'd stuck me with the needle. "What's this going to do to me? What has it done to you?"
There was a loud click, and a whoosh. A rectangle of eye hurting white light appeared - a door opening.
Milliard sounded truly regretful. "You'll find out soon enough."
All I could really make out in the brightness was a couple of shadowy figures approaching, dragging a bundle between them. It took a lot of squinting, but as they entered the room, I realized that it was two women like the ones that had attacked me, nasty tattoos and all, dragging Wufei between them.
"Wufei!" I couldn't help it, I yelled his name. It was good to see him alive, relatively speaking. At least I sure as hell hoped he was alive.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Milliard sit up, pressing near the bars. There was a strange, animalistic snarl on his face, and an odd sound coming from him that it took me a moment to recognize as a growl.
The two women stopped at the edge of the floor, too far away for me to have even the hallucination of reaching them. A third woman walked in the door, pulling a small box from the sleeve of her robes.
"Hey, you! Hey, I'm talking to you here!" I yelled. They ignored me.
"Don't..." Milliard whispered.
The woman held out the box and pressed a button on it. Must have been a remote control, because the empty cage glided toward them, stopping at the floor. Wufei got tossed inside like a sack of moldy potatoes and then it was sent back to its original place.
The woman turned toward me and suddenly my cage was gliding forward. So I did the only thing I could, scooting to the rear. It didn't help much, but I didn't want to be anywhere near these things unless I had a gun.
The woman stepped forward as the cage stopped. "You. Stick your left arm out of the cage."
I crossed my arms. "You," I mimicked, getting her inflections down on the first try even, "go choke on a rhinoceros dick."
She didn't even blink. "The choice is yours. Hard or easy, you will do as you are told."
"Lady, I don't even do what my teachers tell me, and I like most of them. Ugly, psychotic hags? Oh fuck no."
"Your choice is made." She said, and reached into her sleeve again, drawing forth something sickeningly familiar: the feather of a raven. My teeth began to chatter and my breath misted as I curled up against the cold that suddenly crashed down on me from all directions. No one seemed to feel it but me. That finally got a reaction; vague surprise, in the form of a raised eyebrow. "You know what this is?"
"Not exactly, but I know I don't like it."
She smiled, and I swear the tattoos on her face wiggled, just a little, like a happy leech. "Good."
I had a few seconds to brace myself for an attack; she bowed her head and began to whisper a stream of sibilant syllables, making gestures with her other hand. I reached in to that special place within, knowing it was my only hope against what I was about to get hit with. It must have been night outside still; the power was eager and leapt to my call. I could almost imagine my hands beginning to glow, a sort of violet that sucked at the air and hurt the eyes. It wasn't really a visible thing, more the saturation of energy made my blood sing in my veins as I held my hands out in front of me, warding off the gathering storm.
The woman pointed at me, palm open, and then closed her fingers in a tight fist. The cold struck at me in a screaming wave.
I almost laughed. Now that I was prepared, it was nothing. It washed around me like water breaking over a rock. Even if the cold surrounding me made gooseflesh spring up on my arms, it couldn't really touch me.
Just standing against it wasn't enough; the power flowing through me wanted more, as did I. Slowly, I spread my hands apart, widening the rift in the cold and forcing it further away from me.
It popped like a soap bubble. The cold disappeared and I stood, surrounded by the warm darkness, so strong now that it tasted like blood in my mouth. I'd never felt so good before. Something dark inside me smiled, and I let the grin creep on to my face.
The woman stumbled. She looked up, a snarl on her face, framed by now writhing tattoos. "Qatarche!" she screamed.
The two others that had been standing by stepped forward, bringing out their own feathers. They began to whisper in unison, and my smile vanished. The gathering wave of power on their side made my hair just about stand on end.
They brought it down on me like a twenty-five pound maul. I didn't have a chance; something broke inside me, letting out an angry shriek.
I crashed to the metal floor, blood streaming from my eyes. Every nerve ending was on fire, but with the frozen cold of liquid nitrogen. I wanted to scream my agony out to the black ceiling, but I could barely even breathe. I was pinned like a butterfly, unable to even blink.
I didn't feel their hands; I couldn't feel anything through the unending pain. They yanked me out of the cage and dumped me unceremoniously on the floor. The two lackeys continued to whisper, and it blended in my mind into the hiss of an angry snake. It was somehow familiar, and anger stirred deep in my belly.
The woman drew blood from my arm, then produced a syringe from the never-ending wonder sleeves. It had a malevolent glitter to it as she held it up to the light. "So where did you learn that little trick, I wonder?" She purred. "We shall have to schedule you for some tests."
The simple, quick pain of the needle plunging into my muscle was something of a relief. It spread its own particular brand of fire through me, chasing the cold away and leaving nothing but euphoria in its wake. As they dumped me back into my cage, I couldn't have moved even if I'd wanted to. In my mind, I was flying.
I don't know how much time passed; colors wheeled across my vision, and every breath made me feel like I was taking in the universe. I played with air molecules in my mind, and composed poetry with frozen strings of wind. But slowly, dimly, I became aware that Milliard was talking to me, his voice calm and steady.
"...drugs," he said, "this is was they do to you. They make you feel as if you could run forever, then keep you in a cage. They give you the ability to taste the wind where the air is only stale. And when it fades..." he drew in a shuddering breath, "the pain is a needle through every cell in your body. And even that cannot compare to the need to feel... it... again."
Slowly, I sat up. My muscles jumped and twitched like they didn't belong to me. I felt like rubber. My eyes were gummy with dried blood. I tried to scrape it away from my eyelashes with limited success; my fingers weren't moving the way I wanted them to. "What are they doing to us, Milliard?"
He shook his head. "What they've already done to me; make you into something no longer human."
I leaned against the cold metal bars. The sensation sent shards of pleasure shooting through me. "Fuck them... I never did drugs when I was on the street. Fuck them..." My breath came in heavy gasps. I think I was trying not to cry.
A thready moan reminded me of what the drug had driven from my mind. "Wufei!" Even though I knew in the rational part of my mind that there was no way I could squeeze through the bars and even if I could, I'd probably fall to my death, that didn't stop me from trying. Wufei was in trouble, more trouble than me. The rational part of my mind could go fuck itself.
Wufei was still sprawled across the floor of his cage in a way that made my joints ache with sympathy. He was stripped down to his pants, showing every bruise, cut, and old scar that decorated his arms and back. He'd seen a lot of action. Slowly, he rolled over. His hair was stuck to his face with sweat and blood, and there was a neat line of burned circles on his chest. "Duo?" he whispered, his voice ragged.
"I'm here, man. Are you okay?" The minute the question passed my lips, I wanted to slap myself. Instead, I laughed.
Inch by painstaking inch, he pulled himself up until he was sitting. He leaned back against the bars, his eyes shut tightly. "You know, Duo, considering how much that question annoys you..."
"I know, I know. Sorry man. I guess I don't get to bitch about it any more." It was hard to figure out what to say next. I mean, it wasn't like we could chat about the weather, and 'Hey, so how is being some sort of fucked-up lab experiment working out for you?' was just tacky. "Is there something wrong with your eyes, Wu?"
"I'm not sure," he said after a pause that made me wonder if he'd passed out. "I'm... afraid... to open my eyes. Before, it was too bright. Everything was. I think I may go blind."
Milliard spoke up, which was just as well since there was really nothing I could say. "It's safe to look. They keep it pitch black in here, so there is no danger."
"Who is that, Duo?" Wufei asked.
"Milliard, a fellow inmate. He's been here a while. And what the hell do you mean it's pitch black? I can see just fine!" I demanded, ending with a glare.
Milliard chuckled. "Another side effect of the drug they inundate us with. Perhaps the only somewhat beneficial one. There is nothing we cannot see in the darkness." He leaned forward so he could get a better look at Wufei. "The choice whether to trust my words is yours, but I doubt you can keep your eyes shut for whatever length is left of your life."
Slowly, Wufei opened his eyes. He seemed pretty surprised that his head didn't pop or something. I let him take a long survey of his surroundings without comment. When he turned to face Milliard, he recoiled.
"Well, isn't that interesting." Milliard said.
"What?" I asked.
"He still has both of his eyes. I've never seen anyone come out of the lab like that before." Milliard looked up. He drew his hair back from his face, and for the first time, I got a clear look. He would have been really handsome were his face not lined with pain and fatigue, stained with dirt and blood. It was his eyes that fascinated me, though. Both were nearly the same color, a sharp, icy blue. But one had a normal, round pupil, and the other was slitted like a cat's.
Oh shit. I recognized that all too well. I had to look away and calm myself, or I would have puked right there. Well, we knew what had happened to Angelo's eye now.
Maybe Wufei didn't notice, didn't make the connection, or plain didn't care. He seemed totally unfazed. "When they were... examining me, they said that they'd never seen anything like me before. That I already carried a different... virus that they wished to cultivate."
"A virus. I've never heard them say anything about it before. The plot thickens." Milliard snorted. "That must be why they check our blood daily. Tracking viral load or something similar. Perhaps we're to be the first victims of the next plague."
"God, don't say that. I don't want to live to see another plague..." I moaned. Not again. I couldn't let it happen again.
"I doubt you will." Milliard said. "Unless you are like me, and they succeed in... changing you."
"Changing us into what, Milliard?"
He stared at his hands for a long time as if they didn't belong to him, flexing his fingers one at a time. Then he curled his long frame into a ball, resting his head on his knees. "You'll find out soon enough, if you're unlucky," was his only reply. Try as we might, neither of us could get him to say anything more.