Winnie knew they were coming for her when she saw them enter the lobby and beeline for the kitchenette where she and Helena were kept. What she didn’t know was why. Her mind had been elsewhere.
They were exemplars, or someone might think that. Winnie had seen many times when Sakhr had ventured down to Alexander’s levels of the spire. A few more detainees would be waiting. A few more unwitting exemplars would be arriving from the lower decks to perform scans. Winnie had stopped watching it after seeing it a dozen times. It always went the same way: confusion, panic, struggle, death.
These “exemplars” came into the kitchenette where Winnie and Helena were kept. “There they are,” one said as he picked them up, as though fetching supplies.
“These are people?” the other asked.
The first shrugged. “Guess so.”
“What’d they do to piss Alex off?”
“Shit if I know.”
They took Winnie and Helena up the spire stairs. Third floor from the top, they knocked at the door. Winnie glanced inside with her mind. In that moment, she knew that today might be the worst day of her life.
It was a horror scene.
Blood. So much blood. Blood on the floors. Blood on the exemplar waiting inside. And especially blood on a man strapped to a chair in the center. It matted his hair and hid his features. It drenched his chest. It soaked into his prison leggings such that the bright yellow fabric was visible only in patches..
“We got em,” said the man carrying Winnie’s crate.
The exemplar in the room nodded toward a table. He was leaning against the far wall with a cigarette between his lips. There was blood on the filter. “They’ll be back in a minute.”
And so the men put Winnie and Helena down, and everyone waited. They chatted as though on a work break. It probably was for them, but how they could be so okay with this? The stench of blood and shit was overpowering. They’d actually gotten used to it. This was a job for them. And now they wanted Winnie.
She vomited. Brownish muck mixed with lettuce oozed from her mouth. Nobody noticed apart from Helena. She plodded over, nudged Winnie, and then tried to look around. She had no idea what was coming.
Alex and Sakhr arrived. When they came through the door, Sakhr recoiled and covered his nose. “Good God, Alexander. Is he even alive?”
Alex scrutinized the unconscious man. “Yes.” He motioned to an exemplars. “Get the next body. Male again.”
The exemplars who had brought Winnie left.
“I told you not to let him get this close,” Sakhr said. “This is absolutely unacceptable. How much blood has he lost? How close to death is he? Did you even listen to me last time?”
Alexander waved him off. “He’s fine.”
“You. Cannot. Let him. Die.”
“We’re being careful.”
“This.” Sakhr waved at the blood pooled on the floor. “This is not careful. How many more times am I going to have to replace the body?”
“That’s up to him.”
“He has to be awake when I transfer bodies.” He points at the man’s many wounds. “I have to feel all this when I’m in his body.”
“Only for a moment.”
“Why can’t you just use ordinary methods? Why must you ruin the bodies? Are you even trying? I put Paul in this body… what? Six hours ago?”
“And yet he still has not complied,” said Alex. “Do you think if he hasn’t complied to this, that waterboarding would have worked? Maybe some splinters under his nails? Trust me. I’ve seen his mind. I know what it will take. I will get you results.”
Shortly, the exemplars returned, dragging a man from detainment between them. At the sight of the blood, the man fought back like a lion. He howled and screamed.
“No!” he stammered. “What is this? What is this?”
It took everyone combined to secure him to a second chair. Duct tape went over his mouth. They sidled him close to the bloodied man until their hands were in contact. Meanwhile, the exemplar who’d been on his smoke break administered a shot of something into the tortured man, causing him to snap awake.
“If you’ll please,” said Alex.
Sakhr glared at him one final time before resting his hands upon both tied men. A flicker later, the roles switched. Sakhr stumbled back, teeth clenched.
The new man who’d struggled so much now slumped. The terror in his eyes changed into a dead focus that stared through the floor with a vacancy that scared Winnie more than the terror had.
The bloody man thrashed wordlessly. Pain from his new body screamed where there had been nothing a moment before. There was no room in his mind for a coherent response, only to flop against his restraints like a suffocating fish.
Alex motioned to an exemplar, who took out a gun, pointed, and shot. The click of the repulse pistol was no louder than a stapler. The bloodied man slumped. Blood poured from a new hole on his forehead.
Alex and the interrogator untied the dead body and tossed it to the corner. For the vacant man, they pulled his chair to a corner and left him facing the wall. The man stared at it as though there were nothing else worth watching.
“All right. You two,” Alex pointed to the remaining exemplars. “Another body.”
“Male or female?”
Alex eyed Winnie. “…Female.”
“Sure thing, boss.” They left.
Suddenly Winnie was hyperventilating. Torture? They were going to torture her? She vomited again. Nothing came up. She struggled to move, but her body was going numb. Staggering, she raced to the corner. Putting her stumpy feet against the wall, she rocked her weight against it, hoping to tip the box. There was no thought to where she’d go, she just had to try. Helena watched curiously. She still didn’t know.
“Looks like they figured out what’s going on,” Alex said. He scooped Winnie up.
She kicked her hind legs, scratching at skin.
“Goddamn this relentless little bitch.” Alex raised her in the air.
“Stop!” yelled Sakhr. “Do not drop her.”
“Just hold her properly.”
“I am. Look.”
Winnie kept struggling, but he gripped her with both hand. She gained no purchase.
The exemplars returned dragging a middle-aged woman in prison leggings and a tank top. She too fought upon seeing the room, but they strapped her to the vacated bloody chair. Duct tape came next.
“Bring her.” Sakhr pointed to Winnie.
Alex didn’t move. “Nope.”
“What? Is that Winnie?” Sakhr pointed to Helena.
Alex jostled Winnie. “No, this is.”
“Then bring her.”
“You want her cooperation, right?” Alex put Winnie on the table and grabbed Helena. “Then she is the one you want.”
Sakhr eyed Alex.
“Trust me,” Alex handed Helena over.
Cautiously, Sakhr took her. He placed the tortoise onto the lap of the prisoner, then touched the woman’s cheek. Eyes fluttered, and there was Helena.
Her reaction was explosive. If she hadn’t realized what was happening before, she did now. Helena kicked and strained with ferocity. Her binds creaked. Her chair threatened to topple. The exemplars caught her. Only once fully restrained did she finally take closer stock of her surroundings. She took in the bloody instruments, the dead body in the corner, and the people. And then her gaze settled on Sakhr, the man who ruled from her old body.
To her credit, despite everything around her, she managed to glare. If Winnie were in that chair, she’d have no strength like that.
Alex grunted when he saw Helena’s scowl, and he turned to Winnie. “Look at me. Look me in the eyes.”
Winnie didn’t look away from Helena.
Alex sighed. He picked a bloody knife off the table, stepped to Helena, and promptly slashed the blade across her face. Helena screamed into her gag. Her cheek spilled open like a broken seem. Blood streamed down her cheek.
Alex turned back to Winnie. “Now do you want to look at me?”
“Good. Now listen close, because we’re going to play a game. We need your power, but we’re currently suffering a few technical setbacks, so we need you to use your power for us. When Sakhr tells you to view somewhere, or to look for someone, you’re going to do exactly that. If you refuse, that’s going to frustrate us. And we’re going to take our frustration out on Helena. Is that understood?”
Winnie looked from him to Helena. The thought of giving these men what they wanted was repulsive beyond imagination. She’d sworn to herself that she wouldn’t, even if it came to this. Everything that had happened since Sakhr escaped had been her fault. Taking their wrath would have been her penance. But Helena? It shouldn’t make a difference, but of course it did. Condemning another to a hell, even if they were just as guilty, was not something Winnie could live with.
And yet Helena shook her head. Her eyes were narrowed. Helena had made herself the same promise: give nothing. Winnie didn’t know where she found the strength. Helena saw the instruments, the body, and the bowl of discarded parts. Yet she glared, as though out of spite more than courage. Her arrogance would not allow her to give these people what they wanted, despite everything that had happened to her. The part of her that made her insufferable was giving her strength. She was being the bitch that she was.
“Come on now,” said Alex. “Look me in the eye and agree.”
But Winnie kept her eyes on Helena. If Helena could be strong, then so would she.
“Hmm,” said Alex. “Maybe you’re not fully grasping this. Do you see that man?” Alex pointed to the person staring at the wall. He hadn’t moved once. “He’s on his third body now. Do you know how many bodies we have downstairs? Last I checked, over eighty. Do you know how many bodies are in the Trinidad detainment camp? Over four thousand. How many bodies do you think Helena will last? How long until there’s nothing left inside her? And the final question: How long do you think we can keep this up? I’ll give you a hint. It’s not hurting us more than it’s hurting her.” Alex stooped down to look Winnie squarely in the eyes. “Now why don’t you agree to cooperate while I’m still looking in your mind. If you don’t, I’m not going to look again for several hours.”
Once again, Winnie looked past him to Helena. She would do anything to be able to talk with her, just for a moment, if only to ask, or apologize.
And yet Helena shook her head again, and so Winnie shut her eyes.
“Okay then!” Alex stood straight. He skipped over to instruments lined up on a table. After looking over them as though perusing ice cream flavors, he pointed one out. “This one.”
He had selected a blowtorch.
The exemplars prepped the tank and attached tubes. With a few clicks from a spark lighter, the torch burst to life.
Helena thrashed in her chair as though they were already applying heat. Winnie wanted to look away, but she was still here. She would hear every shriek and smell the burning flesh,. Even if she looked away, she knew her flair would watch every single second. How could she not watch?
Everything Helena was about to endure was because of Winnie, even if Helena had encouraged her. And for what? Alex said he’d do this as long as it took. Either Winnie would cave after Helena suffered, or Paul would eventually give in, and they’d make a glyph of Winnie’s power. It was idiotic to resist. Alex was going to get what he wanted one way or another.
Alex scrutinized Helena. “Start with her… feet.”
The exemplars tilted Helena’s chair onto its back, putting her legs upward. Helena kicked and thrashed, but her leg bindings were solid.
Winnie couldn’t do this. Even if Helena still had courage, she didn’t. If it were her own body—her own pain—then maybe she might try to be brave, but she couldn’t have Helena suffer for her.
She wailed. The sad, tortoise noise was hardly audible over Helena’s struggles and the hissing torch. She wailed over and over, but the spectacle continued.
With Helena’s shoes removed, the exemplar adjusted the torch to a clean blue burn, then lowered the torch toward Helena’s feet. Helena sobbed into her gag and strained away.
Everyone paused. It was Sakhr.
“Look,” He nodded toward Winnie. “Check her. I think she’ll cooperate now.”
“I don’t care,” said Alex. “I warned her I wouldn’t ask again for hours. I meant it.”
Sakhr sneered at Alex as though observing a crushed cockroach that wouldn’t stop twitching. “I didn’t come here to play your sick, sadistic games, Alexander. I’m here because I need to know what the hell is happening in my military right now, not in several hours. If the girl will give me what I want, then we’re done here. Now check her.”
Alex shrugged. He motioned for the exemplars to cut the torch, then moved to Winnie. Winnie met his eyes.
He sighed. “Say what you will about my methods, but I get results.”