The sound of machines crunching and huffing was the first thing I heard as I took the breath and opened my eyes. I was not sure whether I had drawn the breath myself, or the machine had pumped air through the tube in my mouth. The air kept puffing every few seconds.
At the moment, I was glad they had woken me from the frozen hibernation state I had been fixed in moments before. I had a powerful urge to cry. While they had been freezing me, I had felt empty, devastated, and I could sense the remnants of the sorrow at the edge of my mind, like a shadow. I had no idea how much time had passed.
I was lying down, strapped to a metal structure, which only supported my lower back. My buttocks were practically in the air, my shoulder blades stiff and trembling with the effort of holding me up. I could not get the tube out of my mouth; my limbs were attached to metallic extensions protruding from the machine.
“Where is Caramel?” I whispered.
During the freezing process, my chest had ached and I’d sobbed, begging for one of the staff to tell me where Caramel was. I was terrified that someone had bought her, or that she’d fallen ill, or that they’d discovered she was of no worth to them and killed her.
The technician responsible for my freezing should not have told me, but he did. He said they were also freezing her. His words brought me comfort – slight, but there. Knowing she was alive was good enough, though I had no idea what the future would hold. I knew we might not be unfrozen together, and that the shop owner might keep us frozen for a long time, and that perhaps no customer would buy us. If we were not sold, they would have to cut their losses and end us. Freezing would become equivalent to death unless someone bought us.
Caramel, my thirteen-year-old sister… there was only three years between us, but the thought of her enduring the needles of freezing pain made me sick.
Humanoids, that was what they called us. We were humans, just… smaller. We didn’t grow over two feet tall, and long ago, my people had moved away from the cities, away from civilization – toward the mercilessness of disease, radiation, and traps set deep in the wilderness. We lived as far as we could from regular-sized humans, and we feared their cruelty and injustice.
Was there a chance that the world had changed while I had been frozen? It might have been eons. Could I dare to hope that justice and rights were again sacred, as they had been in the old time?
Perhaps, but if there was a chance, it was so slim one might miss it by blinking. The chances of the shop even keeping us alive for that long were almost non-existent; freezing was expensive. It had probably only been a few months.
Realistically, I could only hope that a person had purchased us, and not an organization that would dump us in camps and treat us like slaves. I could not imagine my life without my sister, so I shut my eyes and prayed that the buyer would choose us both. Prayers felt infinitesimally small, but I had no other power.
Maybe the buyer was a wealthy and powerful humanoid, and on a mission to free captured humanoids.
The machine made a squeal; the support under my back started rotating, and within seconds, I was erect. The attachments binding my limbs moved, and I moved with them as if I was sprinting. It shocked my stiffened muscles and hurt enough to bring tears to my eyes. The machine paused, and I sighed in relief – and then suddenly, five needles pricked me in the back in a single jab of concentrated pain, and I was running again. I tried to scream, but I couldn’t.
Other than the machine, the room was empty, but when I managed to focus ahead of me, I saw a window of black glass, and I could make out the movement of humans behind it. I guessed that the technician, the buyer, and probably the shop owner stood behind the glass.
To distract myself from the burn of my arms, still forced by the machine that held me, I closed my eyes and recalled my father’s stories about the early days of the humanoid. From what I had memorized, I knew that the earth had rebelled against the humans.
Changes started with the warming weather drying up the lands, followed by harmful radiation rays that took the lives of many creatures and changed the lives of the rest. When resources decreased, nations fought with toxic weapons, further damaging the earth. We knew the Nation Wars as the two-decade nuclear wars.
In the year 2054, scientists had revealed humanoids to the world, and they had confirmed that we originated from human beings. Radiation had caused a change in our genetics, keeping us small, and we tended to be hairier all over our bodies, but other than that, we were identical to humans.
The vast majority of humans didn’t believe them. They called us abominations, mutations, mistakes born of animals, and not human beings. Human bounty hunters tracked us and treated us like dogs.
Before they captured Caramel and I, we had lived in the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico, and the year was 2235. Our village had been in one of the many habitable areas on the continent, but was probably among the least livable. We always faced difficulties with finding food, but we thought we were safe from the humans. As humanoids, we could live nowhere else. Humans wanted to capture us to use us for heavy labor and risky missions in radioactive zones.
I remember when they attacked our caves; they crowded the children into the vehicles and gathered the adults in the cave. While waiting in the trucks, pressed among other crying children, I had heard the gunshots. I had gripped the bars and closed my eyes, because there was nothing – nothing – that I wanted to see.
How long had we been frozen? A month? A year? Twenty years?
I didn’t care if a thousand years had passed. I just cared about Caramel, and whether I would ever see her again. The only person left for me in the world was my sister.
The machine calmed down, and the extensions relaxed their grip on my limbs. My breath caught, and I felt tears on my face, though I hadn’t known I was crying. The machine moved me into a sitting position, manipulating my arms and legs in a mockery of human movement. A moment later, I was released.
A human entered the room. He was over five and a half feet tall, a normal-looking human. To me, he seemed a giant.
“Where is my sister? I beg you, mister; can you please tell me? Please?”
He took me by the neck and moved my head into a muzzle and tightened it. His hands were rough. He produced an old piece of cloth with a fabric belt tied at the waist and dressed me briskly, tugging it into place. All I could do with the muzzle was hum and avoid thinking about how thin I had become.
I jerked my chin and tried to get some words out, longing to tell him that the cloth stank enough to make me retch. He smacked me in the back of the head, then pressed down on my head to make me kneel. Stiff and sick with terror, I did.
He left the room for a few minutes and came back with a metal cage. “Inside.”
He mounted the box on a trolley, and we started moving. I had to balance by sticking my head to the corner and clinging to the bars, catching glimmers of the world through tightly woven metal.
After some lifting and grunting, the door of the cage opened to the rear interior of a vehicle. I caught a glimpse of the car as the cage was maneuvered in. It was an 8-wheeler, an all-terrain model. Elders from the village had told us that the car was so reliable it could withstand an explosion.
I stood up as the rear door slammed shut, and the lock clicked.