Enough gray light filtered through the ceiling grate for Ariock to see his blurry reflection on the filthy dungeon wall. Heavy black chains restrained his shadowy form, with dented armor and the pitted faceplate of his helmet. No eyes. Just an ugly, ferocious blankness where his face should be.
This was who he was, and what he deserved to look like. The telepaths must have seen savagery inside him, even on Earth, unknown to himself or his mother or to Thomas. But he was a murderer.
“They deserved it,” his inner mind told him in the sweet, sympathetic voice of Vy. “They weren’t innocent day lilies. They probably torture people all day, every day.”
No. Ariock wasn’t going to justify his murderous rampage, not even to himself. For all he knew, his jailers worked under duress. Maybe they served a larger good purpose that was beyond his knowledge. Maybe the sum total of their good deeds outweighed the bad. He had no objective way to judge them. He wasn’t a telepath.
He had just enjoyed crushing skulls and snapping bones. He had seen terror in their red eyes, and rejoiced, bathing in their blood. The memory sickened him now. But at the time, he had been a whirlwind of strength. For a few glorious seconds, no one could stop him, no one could stand against him. Blind bloodlust was the only way to describe it. One could almost call it an accident, he’d had so little intent.
That must be why they hadn’t stopped him fast enough. The telepaths usually sensed his emotional state and went on guard when he was in a dangerous mode. This time, he hadn’t been angry or considering violence. He hadn’t thought at all. He had simply flowed from his usual dejected state into . . .
Awareness. He had been trudging up the aisle, surrounded by guards and red-eyed telepaths with blaster gloves, and he’d had a strange sense of oneness with his immediate surroundings. The scuffed floor felt as familiar as his own skin. His chains might as well be the hairs on his arms, inconsequential. He had been aware of the lives around him, like they were sparks of static electricity pinging his skin, so obvious that he didn’t need to look to know where each one was. He was no longer limited to the scope of his body. In that moment, he had felt immense, unbreakable, like a juggernaut, capable of breaking his chains and killing anyone who tried to stop him.
He hadn’t broken his chains, of course. The guards had gotten him back under control, and although he clung to the fleeting sensation of immensity and freedom, he lost it once the telepaths began to torture him with pain seizures. They’d taken turns for hours.
“Well, they shouldn’t have tried to force you to murder someone.” Vy would say that. He pictured her, as beautiful as an actress in a movie, talking to him as if she wasn’t repulsed at all. “You do have some control. Otherwise you would have torn that guard apart in the arena.”
Maybe. The hapless guard had seemed self-aware, sorrowful as well as furious. Too much like himself.
“You’re human,” Vy might say, if she was still alive.
He hoped that she had escaped, along with his mother and Cherise and Thomas. Maybe they were all drinking the tea that his mother liked, sitting around the kitchen table in the mansion, laughing about their misadventures among aliens.
“You’re giving up on us?” His imaginary Vy sat down, arms wrapped around her legs. “That means death. We need you.”
Ariock slumped, gazing at his dull reflection in the dimness. No one had ever needed him. He’d been nothing but a burden, all his life, and yearning to be a hero was worse than pointless. He might as well wish to be shorter. He couldn’t save himself, or anyone else. He was a faceless nobody, a freakish monster.
“I’m not talking about rescue.” Imaginary Vy sounded frustrated. “I wish you would stop abandoning people, including yourself.”
Ariock thumped his helmeted head against the grated ceiling. Perhaps she had a point. There was no need for extra self-punishment, since the telepaths hurt him so often.
He searched inside himself, seeking a better version. He closed his eyes and imagined the sky room around him, with its familiar furniture. There was the glass wall, with its tantalizing view of the outside world. The balcony, which cast a shadow where he could sit and hide, statue-still whenever his mother entered the room. She didn’t need to be visually assaulted by the sight of her freakish son. He had quilts and pillows and rugs and books and games, and the large television screen, where he spent hours trying to forget who he was.
He used to pace along the glass wall, drinking in the sight of pine trees and the mountainous horizon. Sometimes he paced while the sky burned red and gold from the sunset, only to watch the sun rise again. Eight familiar steps, then reverse for eight more. The rhythm of walking was a drug, and at night, he turned off the lights so that he wouldn’t need to see his reflection in the glass. He spent countless hours studying the individual threads in the carpet, or watching snow fall. Years flew by during which he stared at the television for days at a time. He didn’t remember a single detail of those shows or how long he’d watched them.
There were nights of listening to the ticking clocks, wishing for a miracle. He used to offer bargains to any deity that might listen, praying for a chance to reverse his growth disorder and be normal-sized. He would sacrifice everything he owned for a chance to be normal. He’d had colorful dreams where he walked alone in an intangible ghost world. In other dreams, he stood alone in an infinite desert, its horizons stretching in all directions, trapped beneath a black cloud that settled lower to engulf him. He went through dark days of suicide contemplation, times when he stared at his own reflection with a knife in his hand.
Ariock opened his eyes. He had always been a prisoner.
“Bingo,” Thomas might say. “Now, can I watch a different channel of your brain?”
Torture was preferable to just being himself. Ariock had never been a fully functional person, despite his ghastly size. He was the fabled tree that fell in the forest with no one to see or hear it. All the pain he’d suffered was pointless, because no one knew who he truly was. No one missed him.
Except for his mother, maybe. He tried to make himself acknowledge the truth of her love. He was valuable to one other person. That made him more than just a hideous beast. He had an identity. He was human.
His reflection on the moldy steel wall looked pathetic and nightmarish. That monster was not who he truly was. He was tired of seeing the same wretch every time he saw himself. He gave his reflection a mental shove.
The reflection crumpled. A dent formed in the wall, twisting the steel inward with a squeal. The grated ceiling got pulled downward, and touched Ariock’s helmeted head.
The distortion stopped as soon as Ariock wondered if he was hallucinating. He stared, because the dent remained. The steel plated wall looked as if a giant had shoved it.
But he hadn’t moved. His shoulders and back were sore from the chains that held him in place, unable to lie down in the cramped cell.
Footsteps approached, too light and quick to belong to the thorny guards. Telepaths. He had never heard them come this fast before. It sounded like several dozen, running.
Ariock gave his chains an experimental yank. They did not stretch or break, of course, and he wondered why he’d bothered to try. He was a prisoner forever. Even if he could get out and wreck his way through the city, and find his mother and friends, they would run away in disgust. They would run screaming.
Ariock grinned suddenly, because he would be so happy to see his mother and friends alive, never mind what they thought! If Vy ran away screaming, well then, fine. Let her. He was done trying to hide the monstrous aspects of himself. He was a giant, he had strangled and ripped apart alien beasts with his bare hands, and if that made anyone uncomfortable, then that was their problem. Not his.
He focused on the chains the way he’d focused on his reflection, trying to give them a mental shove. It seemed foolish. The dented steel wall couldn’t have been caused by him.
His mind flattened out in a strange way, and he felt as cold and unyielding as iron.
Telepaths threw themselves across the grated ceiling and aimed their gloved palms downward, pelting Ariock with what felt like rain. Tiny points stung his bare shoulders and arms and legs. His disassociation passed, and he was no longer iron or anything unusual. He was just Ariock again. No matter how he tried to mentally shove things or regain the inhuman feeling, he couldn’t make it happen.
The telepaths stood up and strolled away, uncaring. Ariock glimpsed something that looked like fear in one pair of red eyes, before that one hurried away to join the others.