Chains clanked in the darkness of the holding cells.
The reek of urine from the latrines and the miasma of sweat and fear twined with the sweet stench of rotting straw. water dripped, trickling down ancient marble work, blackening what was once fine with mosses and algae.
Humidity and heat. the whiff of the sea, far off, a cruel, tormenting scent that told the prisoners they would never taste freedom again. Sometimes a prisoner, a deepwater Christian or a rust Saint devotee, would call out, praying, but mostly the prisoners waited in silence, saving their energy.
A rattling from the outer gates told them someone was coming. The tramp of many feet.
A few prisoners looked up, surprised. there was no stamping of the crowd, no soldiers shouting for blood sport coming from above. and yet the prison gate was being opened. A puzzle. they waited, hoping the puzzle wouldn’t touch them. Hoping that they might survive another day.
The guards came as a group, using one another for their courage, urging each other forward, jostling their way down the cramped passageway to the last rusty cell. a few had pistols. One carried a stun stick, sparking and cracking, the tool of a trainer, even though he had none of its mastery.
All of them carried the reek of terror.
The keymaster peered through the bars. Just another dim, sweltering lockup, straw strewn and molding, but in the far corner, something else. a huge shadow, puddled.
“Get up, dog-face,” the keymaster said. “you’re wanted.”
No response came from the mountain of shadow.
Still there was no response. in the neighboring cell, someone coughed wetly, a sound heavy with tuberculosis. one of the guards muttered, “it’s dead. Finally. Has to be.”
“no. these things never die.” the keymaster pulled out his baton and rattled it against the iron bars. “Get up now, or it will be worse for you. we’ll use the electricity. See how you like that.”
The thing in the corner showed no sign of hearing. no sign of life. they waited. minutes passed. more minutes.
Finally, another guard said, “it’s not breathing. not a bit.”
“It’s done for,” agreed another. “The panthers did the job.”
“Took long enough.”
“I lost a hundred red Chinese on that. when the Colonel said it would go up against six swamp panthers...” The guard shook his head ruefully. “Should have been easy money.”
“You never seen these monsters fight up north, on the border.”
“If i had, i would’ve bet on the dog-face.”
They all stared at the dead mass. “Well, it’s maggot meat now,” the first guard said. “The Colonel won’t be happy to hear it. Give me the keys.”
“No,” the keymaster rasped. “Don’t believe it. dog-faces are demon spawn. The beginning of the cleansing. Saint olmos saw them coming. they won’t die until the final flood.”
“Just give me the keys, old man.”
“Don’t go near it.”
Permission to excerpt granted by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, New York NY. Copyright (C) by Paolo Bacigalupi
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