It had been raining for a while. The weather in this hemisphere of the planet was usually pretty rough. It was now night-time, and most everyone had retired to their warm, safe beds. Outside, steam rose from grids in the gutters, and the rain pitter-patted on stone.
From somewhere came the round of rapid, splashing footsteps.
Sebastian ran and ran. His lungs burned, every drawn breath feeling like fire coursing down his throat. His head throbbed, his sight was going increasingly blurry and his legs felt numb from exhaustion and cold, and still he ran. He entered an alley and sprinted through, turned again, another alley, sprint and turn, taking a zigzag path without looking back.
At last he came to a stop, at the end of a cul-de-sac with a wooden fence. He leaned against the fence, hands above his head, gasping for air. The rain pounded him mercilessly.
There was no warning, no telltale sound of their arrival. He just felt a sting on his back, and a sudden onset of vertigo.
He sank to his knees, and the world turned dark.
The first thing he noticed was the smell. There was sweat, and filth, and a cloying sweetness. But there was also the faint sense of something stronger, something that cut right through all the other scents. It reminded him of visits to the hospital; it was the smell of a dead cleanliness.
He was sitting in a chair. His hands were tied behind his back, his feet to the chair legs. His head felt clamped in place, and couldn't move. His vision was still blurry, and the light seemed dim, but he thought he heard the sound of someone else sitting in the room.
"Hello?" he ventured.
There was no reply.
"Look, if this is about that bag of Crash-"
"It isn't," a voice said. It was a man's voice, deep, with a rather drawn-out accent. The words came out as Eet Eesn't.
"He thinks it's the Craaash. He don't know what he's doing here," said another voice, higher-pitched.
"He'll find out," said a third. This one raised the hairs on the back of Sebastian's neck. It was a very calm voice.
He heard someone stand up. A gust of sweat wafted over him, and he tried not to be sick. A faint shape kneeled in front of him, and he heard two pistolcracks from the man's knees. A hand was laid on his shoulder.
"You've done a lot of things, my friend, my brilliant friend," said the voice that had spoken first. "A lot of things." He sighed. "There are people who really ... who're unhappy with you. You know? There are people you've really let down."
Sebastian's eyes were starting to focus. The man in front of him was short and stocky, with muscles that had started running to fat. His haircut, beard and clothes were all of trim cut, but dirty and grimy. His eyes looked tired.
There was a table in the room, with two men sitting by it. One looked like a live wire. He was skinny, and wore tattered shoes and pants, and an unbuttoned shirt revealing a rib cage that looked like a toaster rack. His short hair stood up on end. His eyes were wide and unblinking, and he was grinning so much that Sebastian could see the top of his gums.
The other man at the table was neat and prim. He sat perfectly straight in his chair, yet seemed quite relaxed and at ease. All his movements were gentle but precise. In his right hand he was rolling around some small, elongated metal object. Sebastian started thinking of him as the Calm man, in direct contrast to the other one, who just looked stone cold Crazy.
The third man, squatting in front of him, seemed the most human. Sebastian couldn't think of any C-word for him, so he just named him Carlos.
In his deep voice, Carlos said, "We are going to spend a while here." He rose to his feet. "And we're going to see if we can't figure out what to do with you. I want you to tell us how you can be of use, my friend. Let's see if your brilliance helps you answer." He walked over to the table, pulled up a chair and sat down.
Crazy got up, holding something. "It's gonna be so much fun now," he said. "Know what this is? It's usually called a nutcracker, but we won't get into that quite yet. I just call it the alligator. It hurts. Oh god, how it can hurt. Here, let me show you." He grabbed Seb's little finger and held it taut, putting the alligator around it. Seb tried vainly to pull it out. "I know, I know," Crazy said, grinning. "If it's any help, this won't hurt nearly as much as what we're going to do to you later on." He clamped down hard. There was a loud crack from the alligator, and over the screams from Seb, Crazy yelled, "You know how many bones there are in just one hand? More than you can imagine! And we're going to find them all!"
After a few more bones had been broken, one of them having torn through the skin of Seb's finger and now sticking out like a splinter, Calm put a hand on Crazy's shoulder, indicating silence. Calm then leaned over Seb and said, "You know, this can all stop, right now. My friend mentioned it earlier on. What we're doing to you can take an end."
"How?!" Seb said, crying and retching. "I'll do anything! I'll steal for you, I'll kill for you, I'll do anything you ask! Please, tell me what to do and I'll do it."
Calm looked at him, disgusted. "I want to show you something," he said. "Can you focus? Can you see?"
"We'll see. Okay, let's bring it in." There was a rattling. Raising his heavy head, Seb saw Carlos wheel in a trolley loaded with items, but he couldn't yet make out what they were.
The trolley was rolled in front of him, and Calm picked up a thin metal rod from it. "This thing here is used for puncturing," Calm said. "I'll use it to point out the other things, because some of them I really shouldn't touch without gloves. Those jars on the lower shelf of the trolley hold various acids. The one with the greenish tint is for skin, and the yellow one is for open wounds. You cannot imagine how much they burn.
"Now, that solid-looking black box beside them, the one with the wires coming out, that's a small generator. The wires will go into various places. And the large plastic box beside that, the semitransparent one, that's the one holding the syringes and the hypodermic needles. Most of them are used and pretty crusty, but we don't mind."
He pointed to the trolley's top shelf. "Basics here. You'll notice the various scalpels. This small one is my favorite, see here." The rod pointed at a tiny knife whose blade was practically nonexistent; it was more of a nib. "Sometimes, our visitors start closing their eyes, in some desperate attempt to ignore what we're doing to them. So, instead of prying them open, with clamps and rods and screws and that sort of stuff, we just remove the eyelids. Simple, effective, saves us a whole lot of trouble.
"Beside those scalpels there are the usual knives, of course, and various sharp objects. You'll notice a progression, from the sharp, scientific things here," he indicated one side of the trolley, then pointed the metal rod to the other side, "down through the lesser tools, ending in this sorry collection of blunt instruments here, though even they can be of use. Take these, for example."
He put down the rod and hefted two bulky-looking iron objects, one like the end of a spear, the other similar but with a large metal block affixed to one end. "This is called a hammer and a chisel. They're heavy, which is good, because they need to be applied with some force. The chisel is placed against your joint like so," he leaned over to Seb and pointed the chisel at the inside of his elbow, then gently put the hammer against the chisel's head with a faint tink, "and the hammer swings with full force like so, driving it into your joint. It's quite marvelous, really."
He put the items back on the trolley and picked up something else. "And these are called pliers. You'll note, though, that the clamping ends have been bent somewhat out of shape. This is on purpose. See the little spike at the end there? That's for your tongue.
"You can still stop it, though," he added. "We just need an answer to the question."
"What question?" said Seb, trying to stop crying. "Anything."
"How can we use you? That's all; that's the question. How can you be of use?"
"I ... " Seb began. The three stood before him, completely silent. "I don't know."
Calm sighed. "Then it's all over for you, I fear. Shall we begin proper?"
He went to the table and got the small metal object he'd been rolling around earlier, then walked back to Sebastian, casually letting the item dangle from his hand. With a rising horror Sebastian realized that it was a long iron nail, with dark flecks on its point. "What do you want?" Sebastian said. "Please, just say what you want. I'll tell you anything, I'll get it for you if there's something you want."
"My friends and I already asked you," Calm said, "and you didn't even deign to respond. If we can't find a use for you, we can't do much.
"As for me, now ... this," he said, rolling the nail back and forth in his hand, "this here is just to start you off. There'll be a lot more before we're through, and you'll probably find that you won't have a single part of your body left unviolated. But this rusty, dull, long nail," he raised it up to Sebastian's face, "this is going into your eye." And the last thing Sebastian's right eye saw, while he screamed and screamed, was the nail slowly being pushed further in.
They'd left it in there, sticking out like a peg. The jelly had oozed out around it, so Calm had dabbed it up with a handkerchief. "Don't want the nail to start slipping out, do we now?" he'd said. "Incidentally, this is why we decided to clamp your head. Personally, I like people to be able to swing their head around, show a little life, but you might manage to ... haha ... hit the nail hard enough on the head to drive it into your brain. And we really can't have that."
"Aaaaaagh! It huuuuuurrrts! Get them off me! Get them off, get them off, get them off!"
"What can you do?" they yelled.
"I don't know what to do!"
"Not good enough," they roared, and kept going.
"Please, not the other hand too. I beg you, oh gods, please-"
"What is your use? What is your use, my brilliant friend?"
"It's - it's - it's - I don't know. I don't know! Whatever you want it to be! What do you want it to be?"
"That's not the answer. We'll start off with one finger-"
"Oh god, no! Please!"
"I think he's fallen unconscious."
"Not hardly. Look, he's still muttering something. Hand me the wires again, please. Thank you. Put it on three, no, let's give it a four. On my mark ... now!"
"There we go."
"Kill me, kill me, kill me, please, kill me-"
"Why? We're not half done yet."
"Kill me, kill me, kaaAAA-"
"More acid, yes?"
Seb was not forming any intelligible words at this point, only sounds and burbled whimperings.
"More acid indeed."
When they were all done, and Carlos had started putting away his tools - not cleaning them, just putting them away, and the syringes and hypodermic needles went into the same box they came out of - what was left of Sebastian raised his head for the last time. His one good eye was having trouble focusing again, everything fading in and out of his vision. He'd see Carlos clearly, then just as a big pink blur, then clearly again.
"Why?" he said.
"What's that?" said Carlos, not looking, just putting away things.
It took Sebastian a full minute to form the words. "Why? What did you want?" he said at last. There were no tears, there was no grief. Nothing was left. "What did you want?"
Carlos put away the remains of his items in silence. Then he walked over to Sebastian and crouched in front of him. "You really don't know?" he said.
"Tomorrow, someone is going to find your corpse. In that alleyway where we caught you, looking all pretty like you do now. And word's going to spread. And we'll have a lot less trouble with the other thieves and druggies in the area. We'll be able to do our business without the annoyance of people like you."
"And the questions?" Sebastian said.
"Had no right answers," Carlos replied. "Here," he held up a syringe, "one last shot. This'll be quiet and calm." He leaned in and injected Sebastian with the contents. "Your vision will go, then your consciousness. I'll be back in a while to get your body."
"Thank you," Sebastian said.
"Don't mention it."
"Thank you," Sebastian said. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." Then he fell silent.
Carlos waited a few moments, then checked Sebastian's pulse. "Return to brilliancy," he said, put away the final syringe, and left the room.