It was still dark when A.E.D was roused unwillingly by an alarmingly loud bell clanging in the distance. He peeled his sleep-heavy eyelids open just as he recalled the previous day's events. Izm, the man he'd unwillingly slept beside, rolled over him and jumped to the floor. .D noted with disgust that he had slept the night in his clothes, without even removing his boots.
“Rise and shine, sleeping beauty!” The red-eyed man grinned, hoisting the colonel up and collapsing the cot. .D winced as he stretched. His whole body felt like one giant bruise, and his stomach was so empty it hurt. All around the room, men pulled themselves from dirty bunks and filed down a spiral staircase. .D could smell the vaguest scent of porridge wafting through the room's open windows. His stomach growled in spite of himself. “Nothing like bed without dinner to work up an appetite, eh your Highness?” Izm joked as he elbowed .D in his noisy stomach.
The Colonel crossed his arms over his middle protectively and glared daggers at the other man. In truth, Izm thought he looked like a particularly disgruntled and sleepy kitten. This kid was about as hardened as a slice of wet bread. Izm grinned, sharp teeth glinting in the first light of dawn. He was sure going to enjoy breaking this rich, pompous bastard.
Slightly unnerved by the other's wide, unflinching smile and cold ruby eyes, .D cleared his throat and straightened his now-dusty blue uniform. “I cannot wait to get out of this filthy hovel and back into proper civilization,” he muttered pointedly.
Izm feigned hurt, clutching his chest dramatically. .D caught the slightest glimpse of the watch, swaying beneath his clothes. “This here is home!” the boy cried. He wrapped his arm around the colonel, who was immediately overwhelmed by his musky, earthy scent. He led them to the end of the room, down the stairs, gesticulating wildly with his free hand, while the other held .D's shoulder in a vice grip, keeping him an unwilling captive. “Sure, it may look like a heap of dirt rolled in more dirt, but you've gotta love the rustic, organic quality of life we've got!” He spoke loudly, and as he descended the stairs into the large main room, men at the adjacent tables raised their heads. They chuckled and nudged each other and Izm continued. “We may be filthy, smelly, uncultured clods, but at least we're happy!”
More and more faces turned to watch him as he walked. “I mean, we're worthless piles of garbage parading around as human beings - but that's why we're here!” The laughter had grown louder, punctuated by hoots. Izm stopped and turned. He was now in the front of the room, .D still held firmly to his side. The colonel was frighteningly uncomfortable, most eyes in the room were turned in his direction. He was sure he'd never seen so many rough, unkempt, and dirty looking men in his life. Izm released his hold on the colonel - who stumbled and nearly fell - as he jumped onto the nearest table. He cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, “What are we?”
“Dirt!” the men yelled back.
“What are we worth?” Izm crowed, he was now walking the length of the table. Men tapped his boots with their open palms as he walked past - a bizarre looking kind of ritual, it seemed.
“Nothing!”, they howled, cackling with laughter. Half the men were standing now, pounding rapidly on the tables. The noise was fairly deafening.
.D could scarcely hear Izm over the sheer volume.“And what are we here for?”
The cacophony grew louder still, echoing back off the domed copper ceiling. Then, all at once the noise stopped. The men rose to their feet and yelled “We are here to die!”
The colonel looked up in horror to Izm, who still stood tall on the table while the men around him stood and milled about - still chortling and jostling each other. The man's red eyes seemed to glow as he grinned wickedly. .D was gripped with cold fear as he realized where he was: he had fallen into a work camp. He was surrounded by murderous criminals and wretches that had been deemed too dangerous for society. Banished. Abandoned in the wastelands, they were sentenced to work to death. There was no way out of this place; once you came, you stayed, and when you died your bones were buried in the dirt and you were forgotten.
Suddenly he didn't care about the watch, the mission, or anything but the thought of spending the rest of his life in this godforsaken dirt pile. As Izm walked back to him and hopped down from the table, his smile grew ever wider and more menacing, sharp teeth gleaming and interlocking.
A.E.D turned and ran, blowing past the surprised porter and through the door as Izm called after him “You won't get very far, your Highness! Enjoy dying horribly out there on your own!” .D tuned him out, his mind reeling with panic. He had to get out of here, had to get back to the city, back to sanity. He stopped dead in his tracks at the edge of the town.
The sun was just beginning to rise, painting the horizon in pastel hues. .D's heart dropped to his stomach. There, to the east, there should have been the outline of a city, but there was nothing. He turned slowly, then began to spin frantically in circles, searching desperately for something - anything. He refused to accept what he saw: nothing but an endless expanse of brown in all directions. No sky ports, no harbor, no water to be seen - in fact, there was nothing to be seen.
He heard a crunch behind him, and turned his head slightly. Izm walked up beside .D and put his arm around his shoulders. He chuckled at the the disbelief and horror that showed on the man's face, and with a sickening grin he repeated his first words to colonel: “Welcome to hell.”