When Yakud woke, he didn’t know where he was. The familiar softness of his bed had been replaced with a stiff mattress. He rolled to his side and found a pain shot through his head. He gingerly reached up a hand and touched where it throbbed the hardest, his fingers probing a spongy knot. The room had exposed metal floors. He couldn’t see the walls through the darkness. A pair of cuffs were around his wrists, connected by a long cord. A similar cuff was around his ankle, terminating in a hoop on the floor.

He stood up and found the floor slightly cold beneath his bare feet. The cord between his arms was long, far too long to restrict his movement. He could have jumped rope with it were it not for the similar cord around his ankle. There was thin light coming from somewhere, but he couldn’t readily identify the source. As he moved away from his bed, the far walls came into view. They were of the same cold metal as the floor.

He probed the wall for a door, finally finding one from the thin seams running from the floor. He began to pound on it, producing nothing more than a muted thump. “Hello!” he called out, surprising himself with the volume of his own voice. It caused his head to throb harder. He tried calling out again, but found his voice now came out as little more than a croak.

Suddenly exhausted, he stumbled back over to the bed. He sat back down and closed his eyes, rubbing them with his palms. His head hurt too much to think, so he laid down, the knot up in the air. After a moment, he slept.

When Yakud woke, he didn’t know where he was. After a moment, he realized that the deja vu was not the result of some strange dream. He was still shackled in this strange, dark cell. He sat up and stood once he realized the throbbing was manageable. He felt at the knot and discovered it had deflated almost completely.

Now he walked around the cell once more, finding it much as he half-remembered it from before. The walls were bare and cold, with only the twin seams of the door breaking the monotony. The ceiling was high, so high he couldn’t see it at first. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness of the room from his sleep, which he found a bit unnerving.

There seemed to be some glass, like windows, around the top of the room. They appeared to be mostly opaque, especially in the light. He could see nothing through them.

He banged on the door again, eliciting little more than the dull thud of before. “Hello!” he called out again. “Where am I?” He felt like the question was silly - of course he was in a prison of some sort. “Why am I here?” he yelled out.

There was no answer, even as he yelled and pounded for what must have been hours. Eventually, his hand and throat grew sore and he wandered back over to the bed. There he sat for a long while, considering his situation and finding himself at a loss. There was nothing he could remember that would have landed him in this situation. He didn’t even know how he got where he was.

He figured the blow to the head must have robbed him of his memories, at least slightly. He could remember his name, who he was, and what he did. But he found he could not precisely remember what he was doing before he got here. All he could think of were random details of a day that may as well have been any day. And he was sure that day wasn’t the day he had spent before he arrived where ever he was now.

In order to occupy himself, he began testing the cord that bound his ankle. It was thin, no more than a few centimeters in diameter, but strong. He strained to break it, twisting and turning and pulling it every way, but it didn’t yield. It tasted like some sort of plastic when he tried chewing it apart, but he gave that up after a few seconds. His teeth seemed to have been more damaged than the cord.

The metal ring around his ankle was no less sturdy. He tried to slip it off, but no matter how he angled his foot, he couldn’t get it to slip through. The rings around his wrists were similar, they wouldn’t fit no matter what he did.

He imagined they might, if only he had some sort of lubrication. He tried spitting, but found he couldn’t muster enough to keep his wrist wet. The rings were too smooth to bite into his flesh, so he couldn’t get the rings wet with blood. He didn’t want to risk biting himself to make blood.

When he realized there was nothing else for him to do, he lay down and waited. Before he knew it, he was asleep again.

When Yakud woke up, his stomach growled. He didn’t know how long he had been in this cell. It seemed like it may have been days, but it also may have been only a few hours. But he was hungry and very thirsty as well. He sat up on the bed and felt his forehead, discovering that the knot was gone, though the flesh was still spongy from bruising.

“Hello!” he shouted as loud as he could. “I’m hungry! And thirsty! Can I get something to eat?”

He didn’t expect any reply and after a few minutes, he stood and started to walk around the cell again. He almost tripped over the bundle that had been left in front of the door.

There were two unmarked packages. One was a packet of water, the other seemed to be some sort of dehydrated food. He opened the packet of water, drank half of it in two gulps, then opened the food. It looked little more than a block of sawdust. He poured the rest of the water on top of it and it quickly turned into a pile of mush.

There were no utensils to eat the mush, so he simply ate it like an animal. He had described food as tasteless before, but he realized as he ate the mush that he had been in error. This mush was truly tasteless, utterly indiscernible from the air.

Despite that, when he finished, he was no longer hungry or thirsty. After allowing the meal to settle, he tried banging on the door and yelling some more, but predictably no one came. He eventually gave up and sat down on the bed.

With little else to do, he began playing with the cord binding his foot, using its ample length to tie knots and then undo them. At first, they were simple things, little more than the cord twisted around itself. But as time went on, he began fashioning more elaborate knots. He would admire them for a few moments, then undo them with a single pull.

As he did this, he began to feel as if he were being watched. He looked up at the glass windows and jumped up when he saw shadowy figures behind them. “Hello!” he yelled at them, waving. “Let me out of here!” he screamed. “Let me out of here!”

The figures seemed to not take notice of him, drifting away from the glass after a few moments. He shouted himself hoarse before he began to wonder if perhaps he was only imagining them. They were little more than vague shadows, only possibly human shaped. Maybe they were nothing more than shapes in the fog, concoctions of his own mind.

As he slumped back into the bed, he realized he was exhausted, closed his eyes, and fell into a fitful sleep.

Another packet of tasteless food and water was always present when Yakud woke. The trash from the other packets were gone, probably when he slept. He was surprised to find that he didn’t need to use the bathroom. He ate the food and drank the water, then tossed the garbage to the side.

He would play with his cord, making knots. Eventually, he would stare up at the windows with their shadowy figures. He was convinced that they were real, not merely figments of his imagination. And they were watching him, he was certain of it.

They would move up to the window, pause for several minutes, then slowly drift away. There were never more than two or three at the windows at one time.

“I can see you!” he screamed at them sometimes.. “Who are you? Why are you keeping me here? What do you want?”

They didn’t answer. They never answered.

One night - he called it night in his head because it was when he slept - he remained awake. He waited for the door to open, for someone to come in and place the food there. But no one came. The garbage remained on the floor. Yakud’s stomach growled, but still he waited.

The shapes above him continued to flit back and forth. He stared at them. Eventually, he fell asleep despite himself. When he woke up, the packets of food were there as they always were. He ate ravenously.

Some time later, Yakud tried to wait again. This time, he pretended to sleep and kept his eyes closed. The first time he tried it, he fell asleep and he woke to find the food replaced as always. That night, he tried once more, this time keeping his mind occupied the best he could with thoughts of his life before the cell.

At one point, he heard the rustling of plastic and opened his eyes. He only managed to see the door wooshing shut. He dove for it, but he was far too late. All he found was the door sealed as it had always been. He pounded against the door in frustration, until he collapsed into a heap.

When he woke up again, he ate the food and waited. This time, when he laid down in pretend sleep, he kept his eye open just a hair so he could see when the door opened. It seemed agonizingly long and for a while, he thought it would not open, that whoever was observing him had realized what he was doing and decided not to come as a punishment.

But eventually, the door slid open, just high enough for him to wriggle out if he could get under it. He only watched, however, wondering at what would happen. There was a gust of air, it seemed, and the trash from his prior meal was sucked out of the room. His new food slid silently under the door.

He saw no signs of manipulation. It could have been automated, for all he could tell. Then a thin tube began to snake its way into the room. His breath caught as he realized it was coming toward him. It crawled up onto his side and he felt a small pinch above his kidney. He tried to shout, but found himself paralyzed.

Whatever the tube was, it was wriggling beneath his skin. He couldn’t even close his barely-open eye, so thoroughly was he paralyzed. The tube was opaque, but he felt as if it were sucking something from him.

It took only a moment, then it pulled out of his body and retreated beneath the opening. The door slid shut behind it.

Yakud sat up with a jerk and felt at where the tube had penetrated him. He found no sign of a wound or that it had ever been there. He lay back down and tried to fall asleep, but found he could only start screaming.

The events repeated themselves night after night. The door would slide open, the trash would be sucked out, his food would be replaced, and the tube would invade him. What they were taking from him through that tube he could not imagine.

He stared up at the shadowy figures that came and went from his window. They were certainly real, he knew. They were not figments created by his mind. They were real people up there, watching him. Torturing him with this bizarre, lonely, empty existence.

That night, he resolved to escape, no matter what. When the door opened, he jumped from the bed and lunged for it. As soon as he moved, the door began to shut, but he was able to get his arm beneath it before it closed completely.

That was a mistake.

The door crushed down on his arm. He shouted in terror and pain as he tried to pry the door open with his free arm. It would not budge. It was pushing down with a tremendous pressure and he was amazed that it hadn’t simply closed and cut his arm in two. For several long minutes, he struggled to get his arm out until the fingers on his free hand were bloody from clawing at it.

Just as he feared he’d never escape it, the door slackened slightly. He snatched his arm back into the cell and the door snapped shut. He clutched his arm to his chest, amazed to realize it hadn’t been broken, despite the pain and pressure. He’d escaped with a bruise. A terrible, painful bruise, but bruising nonetheless.

He wept himself to sleep.

The days blurred together. His arm healed, slowly, until it no longer pained him. Eventually, he saw no mark of having hurt himself. Indeed, he could barely remember doing it. He could barely remember anything beyond his day-to-day existence.

There was someone else in the cell with him. Yakud was terrified. He didn’t know why there was someone else here.

It was an Amarrian man, young-looking for an Amarrian. He was in much the same state as Yakud, lying on a stiff bed that had materialized in the cell in the middle of the night, on the opposite wall from Yakud. His wrists were cuffed and his ankle was lashed to the floor.

Yakud was far too afraid to wake the man. He didn’t want to touch him and see the man disappear into nothingness, a mere figment of Yakud’s imagination. When the man finally woke up and turned to stare at Yakud, neither of them said anything.

Yakud could tell the man was thinking the same thoughts as he was. “Are you real?” the man finally asked. The sound of another human voice was so strange to him. It took him a moment to recognize the sounds as words.

“Are you?” Yakud asked.

“I’m Perick,” the Amarrian said. “You’re a Minmatar.”

“I’m Yakud,” he answered. “Did you put me here?”

“No,” Perick said, shaking his head. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“No. Do you?”

“No. How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know. Do you know how long you’ve been here?”

“No. A long time, I think. It’s all blurred together.”

“I’m hungry,” Yakud said.

“Me too,” Perick agreed. They got off their beds and both went toward the food. They both touched the single packet at the same time. So shocked were they by the human contact that they jerked back as if they’d been shocked.

“There’s only one,” Perick noted.

Yakud shook his head. “Yeah, I know.”

“What do you want to do?”

“I guess we should split it.”

They did so and when they finished, both were still hungry and thirsty. “I wonder if they forgot to give us two?” Yakud wondered.

“Would they forget to do that right after they put us together?” Perick wondered. “That seems strange to me.”

Yakud agreed. “I wonder why they put us together?”

“I don’t know.” Perick laughed. “It can’t be for good behavior.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because a few days ago… I think it was a few days ago, at least, I tried to escape.”

“How?” Yakud asked, thinking of his own arm caught beneath the door.

“By waiting until the door opened at night and trying to get through. I got my hand caught underneath, though, and only just managed to get it out.”

Yakud nodded his head. “I did the same thing, but got my arm through. I thought it was going to be broken, but it wasn’t.”

Perick nodded. “Yes, I thought the same. But I tried a few more times and discovered that it never puts enough pressure down to really hurt you. Just enough to make it hurt enough that you’ll pull it back out instead.”

“Huh. Good to know,” Yakud said. He felt light headed. He sat back down on his bed and felt himself begin to grin widely, foolishly. The Amarrian man began to grin too.

They spent the day talking about their time being captured. Their stories were similar. Both had been here so long they could barely remember the outside. They had both seen the shadowy figures around the window, watching, which they still saw now. That confirmation seemed to bolster them both. Both had witnessed the small tube enter their cells at night.

“I figure it’s taking away our waste,” Perick suggested and Yakud had to agree that sounded reasonable.

Neither had any idea who their captors were. “Amarrians?” Yakud suggested.

“I don’t think my people would do this,” Perick answered, not showing the least bit of offense at the suggestion. “Though I suppose it has led to me praying to God far more than I had before I arrived here.” Yakud asked if prayer had helped at all. “Not really. It helped keep me sane, I think, but it hasn’t gotten me out of here. Or gotten me any information. Though I suppose it brought me you to talk to.”

“Yes. I think I would have gone crazy eventually, locked in here all alone.”

“Probably, if we aren’t already both crazy.”

They both nodded at that. By now, they were both tired, and they slept.

When they woke, there was only a single packet of food again. “I wonder if that’s some sort of test,” Yakud wondered.

“It’s enough to survive off,” Perick said. “I’ve seen slaves make due with less.”

“You owned slaves?” Yakud asked.

Perick shook his head. “Not me, personally, no. I was a slave driver for a holder, though. Sometimes, when he wasn’t happy with a group’s production, he would cut down their rations to almost nothing. What we’re being given is far better than what they got.”

“That’s good to know,” Yakud answered. “At least we won’t starve to death.”

“You aren’t angry?” Perick asked.

“At what?” Yakud wondered.

“Me being a slave driver. I mean, you’re Minmatar.”

Yakud shrugged. “I suppose I should be,” he said. “I mean, I’m pretty sure I would be if circumstances were different. But I don’t think I could bother with it here.”

“That’s good,” Perick said. “Maybe if we work together, we can get out of here.”

“Maybe,” Yakud said.

The next day, they once more got only a single ration of food and water. They split it again as their stomachs growled.

“Maybe one of us can hold the door open and the other one can get out,” Yakud suggested.

“No,” Perick answered. “Either we both get out or neither of us does. We have to make that promise.”

Yakud nodded and held out his hand, which Perick clasped. “Promise. Both or neither.”

“Both or neither,” Perick repeated. They let go of each other and Perick sighed. “But we have to figure something out.”

“The door closes too fast for us to get more than an arm in there,” Yakud said. “Even if we move as fast as we can.”

“Maybe with both of us working together, we can pull it open,” Perick suggested. “It’s possible.”

They tried it that night. Yakud got his arm underneath the door, then managed to wriggle it back so just his hand was underneath it. Both he and Perick tried pulling, but the door was pushing down too much. They strained and strained, but couldn’t get the door to even budge higher than their fingertips.

Eventually, they gave up.

The next morning, they both had strange collars around their necks. They spent the better part of the day inspecting them, prodding them, poking them, pulling them. They weren’t uncomfortable, though neither would fit over their heads no matter how they struggled.

“I wonder what they are?” Perick wondered.

“Who knows?” Yakud said. “One more strange thing.”

“I wonder if they’re some sort of punishment for trying to escape?”

Yakud shook his head. “I don’t think so. Why would they only punish us now? We’ve tried to get out before.”

“Maybe you’re right.”

“But I have an idea,” Yakud said. He bent the cord connecting his wrists in two and threaded the end through the loop on the floor that connected to the cord around their feet. He handed the end to Perick. “Pull.”

Perick stood and pulled with all his strength while Yakud did the same. Their faces turned red with the effort and it seemed one of them would drop from exhaustion when the wrenching grate of metal sounded. The two fell to the ground in exhaustion and lay gasping for several minutes.

When they finally recovered, they looked at the loop on the ground and found it has been pulled up away from a small, almost invisible seam just enough for them to slide the cords connecting their feet off it. They whooped and hollered and hugged in joy.

The next day, their ankles were reconnected to a repaired loop. They repeated their actions from the previous day and found they were once again able to pull up the loop and slip their cords free. It was a moral victory, since the cords had been long enough to keep from restricting their movement around the cell regardless.

“Now we just need to figure out how that lets us get out of the door,” Yakud said.

“I have another idea,” Perick said. “Now that we have these cords free.” He sat on his bed and tied the free end of the cord into a loop, with a complex knot at the end. When he pulled on the free end, the loop closed without the knot coming undone. He draped the loop around his neck and seemed ready to pull when Yakud grabbed his arm and stopped him.

Perick looked at him in confusion. “Just in case,” Perick said. “We have a way out.”

“A way to die.”

“We’re already in Hell, what does it matter?”

Yakud could not disagree. “We still have things to try,” Yakud said.

Perick slipped the noose from around his neck and nodded. “Yes. We do.” He looked over at the packet of food and water. “I think I have another one, that’s good.”

That night, when the door opened, Yakud dove for it and managed to wedge the packet of food in it. As expected, the door only pressed down on the packet until it was deforming, but not enough to crush it.

Yakud and Perick grinned and hugged. “The opening is just large enough!” Perick said as he peered through it. He laid his head on the side and slowly crawled forward, pulling himself by his fingernails. If he hadn’t been subject to being barely fed for months, he would have never made it. As it was, he was just able to slip under the door.

“Can you fit through?” Perick asked from the other side.

“I don’t think so,” Yakud answered.

“Hold on a minute.” Yakud could hear the sound of Perick’s feet moving away from the door, until they were too far away for him to hear. For a brief moment, he was certain that Perick had abandoned him. But then he heard the footsteps again and saw a long metal rod jammed through the opening. There was grunting and the door opened slightly more under the lever. “Now!” Perick grunted and Yakud dropped to his stomach and slid through.

Perick dropped the lever with a grunt and fell to the ground. Yakud grabbed the unopened food and pulled it to the other side. The two of them ate it and rested a moment.

The outside of the cell was similar to the inside. The walls and floor were made of cold, bare metal and the ceiling was just out of sight in the dim light. Windows ringed the top of the walls and shadowy figures moved around them, peering down at the two.

“They know we’ve escaped,” Yakud said.

“I don’t think it matters,” Perick said.

“Where did you get the rod?” Yakud wondered.

Perick pointed down the hallway. “It was laying against a wall, like it was left there for us.”

“That’s weird,” Yakud said. “This has to be some sort of test.”

“Maybe,” Perick answered. “But if it lets us get out, I don’t care what it is. Let’s go.”

They stood and walked down the hallway. It seemed endless. In the dimness, they could not see an end either way. The hall was lined with doors, similar to the one from their cell. They tried to bang on them, to discover if there were other prisoners similar to them, but after receiving no reply from the first several, they gave up on it.

Eventually, they reached another door at the end of the hallway. They pounded on it in frustration, then searched for some unlocking mechanism. They couldn’t find one, so they sank to the ground in despair.

“What now?” Yakud wept.

“Look,” Perick said, pointing up at the windows. The shadowy figures, which before had drifted in and out of view, were gathering. There were a dozen of them, at least, all standing and looking down at the two men.

“What do you want?” Yakud screamed at them, not expecting any answer.

“One must die for freedom to be given,” a voice came from nowhere. Yakud and Perick both went white, their blood frozen in their veins. The voice had been like a whisper, tickling the edges of their minds.

“What?” Perick gulped, but the voice did not repeat itself.

“One must die for freedom to be given,” Yakud repeated to himself.

“They want us to kill each other,” Perick said. “They’re monsters!”

Yakud turned to his friend and stared at him. He took the cord around his ankle in his hands and wrapped it around Perick’s throat and began to pull. Perick struggled against him.

“What are you doing?” he choked.

“You have to die!” Yakud said. “If I want to get out of here!”

“We promised to escape together!” Perick gasped. “Why?” His face was turning red from the strain.

“You heard the voice! One or the other, not both! I can’t help it, Perick.”

“How can you do this?” Perick said. Tears were beginning to stream from his purple face.

“You said it yourself, once! You’re a slaver. You’re a filthy, Amarrian slaver!” Tears were forming at Yakud’s eyes as well.

“Please…” Perick gurgled. “You said you couldn’t be angry at me for that… How can…”

“Circumstances have changed!” Yakud tried to growl, though his voice caught in his throat and broke as he said the words.

Perick’s hands went slack and he stopped struggling. “I forgive you,” he managed to choke out before his eyes rolled back up into his head. A small humming sound began to fill the air. It slowly rose in pitch and Yakud realized it was coming from Perick’s collar.

There was a slight flash of light that dazzled Yakud. His own collar clicked open and clattered off his neck. The door in front of him slid open. He stumbled through.

His eyes readjusted slowly to the dim light. When they did, he realized he was back in a cell. He turned back to the door in time to see it slide shut.

“What? I was supposed to be free!” Yakud screamed. He looked up at the windows. But there were no figures there.

He screamed and pounded on the door for a long time, until his arm was bloody and his voice gone. Finally, he collapsed into sleep.

When he woke, a packet of food was lying on the floor. The cord was attached to the loop on the floor again. He strained to break the loop again, but he wasn’t strong enough. When he tried to tie either of the cords into a noose, the knots always slipped away when he pulled tight.

He slumped over to the food, tore it open, and ate.

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