Prometheus and the Eagle
rating: +8+x

Able is deep, deep down, and dreaming.

His mouth and nose fill with seawater, choking and cold. He tries to spit it out, but it’s all around him, stinging his eyes. His blood pounds in his ears, rage singing through every limb. His fingers scrabble at the cold walls of his prison, but he’s disoriented. It’s too difficult to tell which way is up, and whether that matters. He scrapes and claws at the walls until his fingernails tear out at the root and tangle in the cloud of long hair floating around his head, little white pearls hiding in strands of black kelp. He keeps going until the fingers are bloody stubs, but he’s moving slowly now, and his ears start to ring. Or perhaps that’s an alarm, the one he knows so well.

Animal panic makes it hard to think, to plan; lack of oxygen makes it worse. Time passes, but strangely. Finally, he can’t fight the urge to inhale; he pushes seawater in and out of his lungs in painful, burning heaves that make his chest feel like it’s been crushed in with a cinder block. It’s dark, but he can’t tell whether or not that’s because his vision is starting to go. Before he stops feeling, he convulsively vomits up a mixture of seawater and bile, which he reflexively sucks back into his lungs. It is some small relief when his body goes numb.

It happens again.

It happens again.

It happens again.

Because he doesn’t remember the time in between, his experience is that of a constant struggle to breathe that never ends. It’s infuriating. Even through the red haze of rage, he wishes he could inhale just a single mouthful of air. A drowning man will sometimes doom his rescuer, forcing him down into the depths, in a bid to get his own head above water. Able is here alone, but he struggles with that same feral desperation. When his muscles start to slow, he presses his mouth against the ceiling (or, equally likely, the floor) and sucks, looking for pockets of air. He usually vomits up quarts of swallowed seawater when his stomach becomes full.

Honor is a long-lost memory, here.

There are times when he thinks he sees sunlight dappling the water and swims up, up, only to collide with the wall of his prison instead of breaking the surface. The false hope only makes him angrier, frothing with hate. So, too, do the voices he hears, soft and muddled. He hears a troop of soldiers marching, marching, their voices just out of earshot. He hears them laughing and joking, on the other side of the steel walls. He imagines their camp, with canvas tents and yak stew over a fire pit. The smell of smoke is thick and rich. He wants only to wring their necks, if he could just reach them. He would kill them for taunting him.

Xаалттай, says a voice, clearer than the others. There is a distant flicker of light in the darkness, like a spear catching the sun. The men are going out on patrol, on their horses. Able almost forgot he was not with them. His eyes shut slowly. Ride and ride, scimitars twirling. Dust kicks up and gets in his nose along with the oily smell of horse, but the thunder of hooves matches the beating of his heart. He knots his fingers in his horse’s mane. His Second catches his eye and laughs, arm raised high, exhilarated. Sweaty strands of hair have fallen about the man’s scarred and sunburnt face; sweat forms tracks in the dirt clinging to his neck. When it is done, they will drink kumis and shout battle hymns to celebrate their victory. Behind his eyelids, Able can see their enemies screaming. Their grain-fed horses are falling into the mud; they try to pull back, but it is too late. It is a good day for blood. A good day indeed!

Able wakes up.

When he beats and kicks against the barrier this time, bleeding and enraged, he hears a woman’s voice calling to him, soft and soothing, as though she were speaking to a frightened child. This one is the worst yet. It makes his mind prickle, white-hot and screaming, as though his palms were being held to a flame. She seems to taunt him, sounding near enough, flesh and blood for him to cut and kill, but just out of reach. Always just out of reach. Put that down. You don’t know your strength, she says. Able, come inside and eat your breakfast. And wash your feet. Boy, you are filthy. He can’t see her face, but he can see her eyes, dark and kind. The saltwater has his throat feeling scoured raw. He shouts at his captors, railing at them, knowing they must see him with their little metal eyes. But he is unable to push the water out of his lungs with enough force to do much more than gurgle. “No more do you hear me no more inu inu inu šabarrane!

The weakened steel wall groans and starts to split under his unrelenting assault. Without anything to brace his body against, getting this far has been a challenge. Able moves to push himself through the gap in the metal and gets an electrical shock that curdles his blood. Able, says the voice, sounding stricken, as delicate black-and-white patterns flutter behind his eyelids.

As he starts to lose control of his body, limbs heavy like driftwood, sometimes he flits in and out of consciousness. He is in neither part of his strange existence, neither alive nor dead, drifting back and forth. He sinks, head coming to rest against his coffin. But he is feeding the goats, feet bare on the earth, the sun beating on his back. And he sinks. The air smells thick with spring, with green and growing things. It will be time to go in soon, to cluster about the hearth, to give thanks for the evening meal. The evening is a time of great peace, when only the insects are around to chirp at him.

Able opens his mouth and sings, loud and deep, voice echoing across the fields and through the valley. He sings for the pleasure of it, because he is good at it, because he can. Strange, but it seems as if it’s been forever since it occurred to him to sing. The hoe is rough in his hands, but he is weathered enough to deal with it, palms thick with callouses.

“You shouldn’t do that,” says one of his sheep, frowning at him. It paws restlessly at the dust. Able hushes it and rests a thick palm against its head. Its fur is coarse and woolly.

“Why?” asks Able. The sun will be down soon.

“Because you are dead,” says the sheep, swollen tongue lolling out of its mouth. Its coat is crawling with fleas, its eyes a filmy white. It stinks. “It does not matter now.”

Able wakes up again.

Sometimes, he sees a pale girl’s face, wide-eyed but determined, staring out at him from the darkness as he rails against his prison. A curl of blonde hair catches in the corner of her mouth, and she frowns at him, brow knit with deep disapproval. She moves her lips, but he can’t hear her. He doesn’t care what she has to say, anyway.

Go, he thinks. Be gone from me!

She shakes her head. She is incredibly disappointed, so heavily disgusted with him. Her hair swirls back and forth, back and forth, a straw-colored stream. She cries, a tinny whine of pain, and the noise echoes through Able’s head, burning into his brain. Her skin is blue-white; he can see the bones through it. It reminds him of a fish fresh out of the river, its little heart visible through its body when he holds it up to the noonday sun.

Go! Go, go!

He won’t tolerate the burning weight of her gaze. He reaches to curl his fingers around her throat, but all he manages is a lethargic twitch of the arm. He is too close to the end, his flesh giving up the ghost. That’s when they come to him, these phantasms, when the hatred in his heart is weakest and there is space there for ghostly things. She darts away, fast and sleek like a freshwater trout, and Able wakes up again.

The next time, she is gone. She is gone and he is alone again. His blood boils. Surely they are laughing at him, having left him alone now, with only the silence for company. They are laughing at his pathetic scurrying. They are laughing at how his coffin confuses him. Oh, how he hates them! This iteration, his strength seems to have waned. He is unable to fight as long or as hard as he must, as his body commands him to.

And this happens a second time.

And it happens a third time. His head swims. He breathes out all the way, empties himself, and sinks to the bottom of the box he’s locked in, drifting, dreaming. Just for now, and then he will fight his way out. Just for now, he allows himself a short rest.

But it happens that he remembers-

“You alright there, boss?”

Able looks up, perplexed. And annoyed, of course. He is in the cafeteria, eating with the team named after him. He has been “strongly encouraged” to do so.

“Why would I not be alright?” His interlocutor’s face seems to shimmer; it merges with the wall behind him, then pops back into clarity.

The man in black fatigues looks at him oddly. “I’ve never seen someone eat that fast before.” He catches the look on Able’s face and flinches, eyes wide. “Uh.” His face merges with the wall again; it scintillates faintly.

“You…are mocking me?” says Able, because it’s true. His own voice is strange and jerky, speeding up and slowing down. He’s not precisely angry, just extremely baffled, but he raises his voice just in case. He should never have agreed to eat with these fools. The director is trying to get them to bond, but they are tools, nothing else. The blue linoleum in the floor shifts to yellow and then back. This is all so familiar.

“I didn’t mean anything, really. It’s just soldier stuff. Giving each other shit.” The man is slowly recoiling, leaning away from Able. He looks like he expects to be disemboweled any minute for his slip of the tongue. Another man’s hand is shifting toward the panic button on the pager strapped to his wrist.

Able drops his fork. “I have never seen someone eat that slow before.”

There is a pause.

His men break into startled laughter. Someone lightly jostles his shoulder in a gesture of apparent camaraderie.

And then-

They’re gone. There is some relief here, something close to peace, when his mental faculties have gone enough that his rage is a thin, clinging veil rather than an oppressive blanket. Able finally inhales, brain sparking out, and wakes yet again.

This time, the girl is back, and another woman with her. He does not remember her name, either. Her hair floats above her hair in a slow-swirling column of grey. Seventy-six seventy-six seventy-six, she says. Rate on a scale of one to ten what is your why are you seventy-six please rate on a scale of did you are you feeling did are you experiencing pain seventy-six.

He wants her to drown, but she is breathing seawater, her body as translucent and slippery as a minnow’s, her coat fluttering open around her. Please rate your distress, she says. Please rate your distress. One to ten, please rate your distress. Are you experiencing anxiety please rate please seventy six. If you are uncomfortable using English we will locate a translator one to ten.

Fire. Guns. Crushing. Stabbing. Anything else, something to fight against besides the slow failing of his own body - and perhaps his mind. These are the only things he can’t strike from existence.

The blonde girl floats an inch from his nose, face blank and yet attentive. Her eyes are luminous and white and weeping. Able wonders, dimly, where the rest of her team is. There were more of them. Were there more of them? Does the passage of time feel like a steady flow does the passage of time feel choppy and broken up please answer the question seventy-six why does his death bother you does it bother you. Please rate your distress.

Time is choppy, slow and then fast. Slow and then fast. As it has always been.

Seven, mouths Able.

Two.

Nine.

And he wakes up.

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