Hard Pressed

When I sat up on my bunk and saw Telders staring at me through the prison bars with cold, vacant eyes, I felt a sharp tremor in my chest.

I almost didn't recognize him.

"What is this?" I said.

"Get up," Michael replied, his voice heavy and even.

I swallowed. Next to him, stood Ivan, a muscular, skin-headed Russian wearing nothing but a pair of bluejeans and a Soviet-style hammer and sickle tattoo on his left breast. Ivan grinned as he toyed with a pair of heavy, red pliers, flipping them around like a giant, toothy butterfly knife.

"Hey, hey, Michael," I said, standing up. "You don't need to do this."

"Let's go, Robertson" he said flatly.

"What, you're gonna torture me? Really?"

Michael looked at the Russian.

"I do torture," Ivan said. "I put on... how you say? Good show?"

"A good show?" I looked at Michael. "Seriously, man? This isn't you."

"Don't make this harder than it needs to be, Robertson."

"What do you want to know? I'm not hiding anything. I already told you what happened in Antarctica. You even said you believed me!"

"Enough," he growled. "Approach the door, turn around, and put your hands through the opening."

I raised my hands. "Fuck that."

"Don't make us come in there and get you, Wayne. I'm want to be reasonable, but you're testing my patience."

"No, this is exactly the opposite of wanting to be reasonable. I'm trying to be reasonable. You're being a dick."

Telders scratched his chin. "Alright. I warned you."

Ivan sneered in delight as Michael fished the key to the cell out of his front pocket.

I shuffled backward, scanning the cell for a weapon. I snatched the chopsticks from my empty plate and held them out like daggers.

The cell door swung open and Ivan rushed in, working the pliers with a sound like chattering teeth.

I felt my body stiffen. "No!" I screamed, and lashed out with the chopsticks, aiming for the Russian's bulging eyeballs. Ivan laughed, easily parrying my attack. He spun me around and wrenched my right arm behind my back, then pummeled me in the spine with his left fist.

Suddenly I was falling. On the way to the floor my head careened off one of the metal bunks, drawing a stripe of blood over my eyes. I slammed onto the cold tile, and Ivan piled on, digging his knee into the small of my back. He delivered a flurry of powerful blows so punishing that I repeatedly rebounded off the floor, taking hard damage from both directions.

"You learn to obey, yes?" Ivan hissed in my ear. He yanked my right thumb backward and closed the pliers around it.

"Don't do this! Michael, what the hell are you doing?" I yelled.

"Shhh," Ivan said. "You will feel little pinch."

The teeth of the pliers bit into my thumb. I screamed out in pain. Ivan jabbed me in the ribs and cackled as he squeezed harder. The bone cracked with a sudden snap, and I howled, begging Michael to make it stop. Ivan grabbed me under the chin and lifted it up so Michael could see.

"Nice?" Ivan said proudly. "Good show?"

With a cold stare, Telders nodded.

"Good," Ivan said, slapping me on the cheek. "Mike, you want I take his thumb?"

"What?! No! Please!" I screamed. "I'll tell you whatever you want! Everything! Anything!"

"I know, Robertson," Michael said. "I already know you'll tell me anything. That's not the point."

"Then what's the point!?"

Michael bent down and looked me in the eye. "The world's gone, Wayne. The few people on these ships are all who're left of the human race. They're tired, they're scared; they're angry. They're desperate for someone to blame. And as far as I can tell you're the closest someone I can find who fits that description."

"But you don't have to—"

"These people need a leader, buddy. And let's face it, I need to be loved. It's a natural fit. Sucks that you have to suffer like this, but you have to admit, suffering is kind of your thing. In a weird way, I think you enjoy it."

"I'll fucking kill you, Telders."

Michael stood up, then nodded to Ivan. "Take it off".

"No!"

The Russian laughed and let go of my head. I saw a flash of light, then the pliers bit in again. Their teeth crushed what was left of the bone, then they started sawing and tearing away at my flesh, yanking the tendons and the nerves out of my hand. The pain was so intense that I started to black out. I was still screaming, I guess, but I didn't feel like it was me anymore. Just some stranger's deep, hollow agony. Just nothing, really. And then total darkness for a while. I don't even know how long.

 

***

"Wayne?"

"Wayne?"

A match struck in the air. I squeezed my eyes shut.

"Sorry. I didn't want to turn on the overheads."

The brightness seemed to fade and I opened my eyes slightly. A hand was cupping the light. After my eyes adjusted, the face of a man I didn't recognize ebbed into view. He slowly brought his hand away from the match.

"Can you see?"

I tried to answer. "Umh, I—"

"That's okay. Don't waste your energy." He brushed the hair out of my eyes with cool fingers. "I'm going to take care of you." He lit a candle with the match, then shook it out. He set the candle aside. Long shadows from the cell bars danced in the light.

"Who are you?" I whispered.

"Just relax. I'm going to give you something for the pain, okay?"

I nodded sluggishly.

"You're going to feel a slight pinch."

I felt nothing.

"Alright, that'll numb your hand so I can sew you up."

I heard a bag's zipper and the sounds of things being taken out.

"Just a few minutes and you'll be right as rain."

"Wait. Who are you?" I asked again.

"I'm Dr. Shinobazu," he said.

"Hi, Dr... um."

He laughed softly. "It's okay. You can just call me Makabe."