When Teryn first walked into the room, he thought it was a monster. He was frightened. The man before him did not look like a human. With his back turned, Teryn could only see the long cords running from the ceiling, hanging low before turning upward and connecting to the man’s back. Several cords littered the floor running into his legs. Legs that were no longer made of flesh. Bone could be seen through the plexiglass and poly-carbonate frame surrounded by the blue liquid currently mimicking blood. Teryn was eight years old. To his eight-year-old eyes, the man was not human.
He was human once. Some of his features still showed semblance of that. Features hidden throughout the mass of cords. A glimpse of a spine. Exposed muscle fibers. The man turned to face Teryn. The face was wrinkled. One eye a cloudy, milky blue. The other green and alert.
“Is this the one?” the thing asked the escort who’d brought Teryn inside.
The escort nodded.
“Good,” the man-thing said, “good.”
Teryn was fixated on the face. It moved like a real face attached to a human body but also danced as if hovering, as if the man were simply a marionette and the master of strings was somewhere else and spoke through it. One arm, flesh covering only the forearm and hand, slowly waved them away after after extending too far from the body to be naturally connected. A noncommittal gesture. The escort came forward but Teryn remained fixated until the grotesque machine-man had turned away to once again hide its human features.
The escort guided Teryn from the room and down a hall. The room had been dark. The walls covered with a scattering of monitors and screens. The hall was a stark contrast of white. The choking smell of sterilization never went away. Teryn was led into a large, white room where he was told to lay on the table he almost didn’t see as it blended into the white walls. His dirt covered clothes seeming to be the only variance to the white.
He was unaware of why he was there, where “there” was, or who had grabbed him off the street. His fear had been subdued at first by the hearty meal they fed him while in the shuttle. It was the first meal he’d had in years. He was one of the lost children, considered a menace and parasite simply because he tried to survive off the scraps of the poor citizens. On good days, he could find an apple core. Most days he would go without anything, so the food in the shuttle was a banquet. A half hour after finishing the meal he’d fallen asleep to the hum of the engine. He woke up in a white room. The escort arrived seconds later. His fear returned little by little as he was taken down the halls. When he saw the machine-man, the fear did not overwhelm him. Instead, it receded again to be replaced by wonder and curiosity.
Now that he was again in a room of pure white, the fear came back to unsettle him. A clear casing descended and encapsulated him on the table. Little metal claws came forth and stripped him bare before the tube was filled with water. The seconds passed like minutes as he panicked within the water. He tried to prevent any from entering his lungs but the need to inhale was becoming urgent. Then the tank drained and air assaulted him. The casing ascended and he looked down to see his skin clean for the first time in his memory. The escort provided him with white clothes.
He dressed and was taken to a dining area filled with other children ranging from his age to late teens. He saw a few he guessed were even a few years younger than he was. He didn’t recognize anyone and kept to himself. Many stared at him while most ate and talked without giving him any notice. He was shown a seat near the back and given a plate of food. He was still full from the shuttle, but he ate voraciously nonetheless because there was never a certainty of another meal.
Six years passed and he grew accustomed to his new life. He would wake up, eat in the mess hall, exercise rigorously, then be given a break for lunch and leisure before returning for a second exercise session. No one spoke to him except the other children. A few he called friends. One of which, Martin, had ran the same streets he had before arriving here. He still didn’t know where “here” was, no one did, but he was grateful. He had turned from a malnourished boy to the semblance of a strong, young man.
New kids joined their ranks every week. Several left their ranks each week as well. The pattern was always the same. Young boys came in and young men left. The few questions asked were never answered. He always speculated that the men were conscripted into the war.
“What war?” Martin always asked.
“The war, you know, there was always advertisements about enlisting. Trying to convince people to leave the city and hop on a ship to some other world where they could fight.”
“There was no war. They just wanted idiots to join labor camps.”
“Yes there was. I remember seeing the ads. They always mentioned three full meals a day. I fantasized about joining but you had to be at least sixteen. I walked into the recruitment center once but the guy threw me out.”
“Those ads were for the labor camps. You could enter one and get food, but then had to work to pay for it. That was the scam. You get a full belly then spend the rest of your days paying for it. Each meal costing more than the previous one.”
“And what about this place then?”
That was where the conversation always ended, because they had no answer. Martin waved off the question as they entered the arena where their second training session was to be held. After three hours, they were exhausted. They showered and returned to the mess hall, ate, then slept like dead men as they did every night.
Four more years passed. Every day more or less the same. Teryn and Martin saw friends escorted from the dining hall or simply disappear after the previous night’s rumble. They suspected their time would come soon and were proven right one night as they sat down for the last meal of the day. They were taken together. It was the first meal Teryn had left unfinished in the ten years at the facility.
He and Martin were escorted down the white halls. No one spoke. When Martin was taken down a different hallway, Teryn watched with concern but returned a nod before Martin disappeared from view. They’d both known the chances of staying together were infinitesimal.
A door opened and Teryn was transported to a memory he’d nearly forgotten. It was the dark room filled with monitors. Cords hanging from the ceiling. Falling close to the floor before turning upward and into the spine of the machine-man. The thing turned toward him. The aged face still held one foggy blue eye and another clear green one. A smile crept across the mask of skin.
“A perfect specimen,” it said, “we can proceed.”
The escort approached Teryn.
“Who are you?” Teryn asked. He didn’t truly expect an answer. He was used to his questions being met with silence, but the machine-man replied.
“I am a monster that was once a man. A nightmare you will soon know.”
Teryn was removed before he could reply. He was taken to the room with the table and fitted into a capsule he did not remember being in the room ten years ago. His mind was circling the machine-man’s words as they placed a helmet on him and he drifted into unconsciousness.
When he came to, he was standing before a mirror. His vision was blurred but slowly coming into focus. Then he heard his voice though he never said a word.
“I must thank you for setting me free,” his body said.
His mind was foggy. His eye surveyed the room looking for explanations. His body stepped toward him.
“You will remain here until yours is found. Then you shall be freed,” it said and placed a hand on his face, “I waited two centuries before you came along. I’m sure your wait will be shorter. Stay strong. If your mind breaks, that will be the true end.”
Teryn couldn’t feel anything as the hand was removed. He watched his body leave the room. He tried to move but no part of him reacted. His eye scanned the screens in front of him. He couldn’t feel his arms or legs and couldn’t even tell if he was breathing. There was no familiar rise and fall of a chest. Nothing. He tried to move again and an arm drifted into his view. Flesh covered the hand and forearm but near the elbow it turned to metal and plastic. He tried to scream but he had no voice.