A/N: I've left the setting/circumstances intentionally ambiguous here. Somewhat metaphorical. The point is really the interface between…uh, I think you can figure it out from the summary. No need for me to reiterate.
Anyone who's familiar with Seligman's experiment with the dogs in the harness would know they eventually gave up and endured the electric shocks, even when given a pain-free escape route. I think it was called Seligman's Theory of Learned Helplessness. Keep that in mind when reading this, especially the ending.
My biology lecturer once said "you'll never die by holding your breath. Sooner or later, bare instinct is going to force you to open your airway and breathe, whether that be air, poison, water…or even a vacuum of space."
In the face of pain, you'd throw anything in your path. Even death. But in the face of death…it might be a different story altogether. For some reason I felt I had to say that.
Stray Dog on the Back of an Iron Rod
He had been reduced to the status of a lab rat raised simply to be experimented on and then killed…provided they endured their trials. Animals whom were tamed from birth, incapable of lashing out at their jailers, placidly waiting out the time when they were chained to their cages by an inch long leash before being placed into a scenario (whether that be thrown into a labyrinth or injected with drugs) to see how they would react. How they would behave without the human factor of thought, the higher order of thinking that occurred in the cerebrum of the human brain, occupying more volume than the brain of any other species (one typically chose to ignore those who did in fact possess larger brain capacities…unless they were whale lovers). He had, in essence, been reduced to the dog in Seligman's harness, trying to escape the initial shocks as currents of electricity flew through their body. Even if the other side had coals burning white with heat, they'd have jumped over to escape the constant shock.
He would have jumped over…if it hadn't been for the cuffs bolting his wrists, ankles, and pelvis to the metal searing with flame. If it hadn't been for the collar around his neck, perfectly fitted to keep his head still, chin erect so his eyes stared into the black ceiling above him with the whites of his eyes glimmering with pain.
Still, he found himself squirming in his unrelenting bonds – withering, trashing – straining to pull his aching skin away from the surface that seared it with its molten heat. But it was pointless. Fruitless. He was trapped. The cuffs squeezed his wrists, the pressure far from reassuring. The collar around his neck throttled him; his breath started to come out in pants as it caved beneath the dual pressure. The heat, that searing pain, became even more unbearable with each passing moment…and then blood began to run down his back, providing an interface. A barrier of sorts.
But blood was a fluid too. And the cool venous liquid couldn't stand the heat that metal carried. It became warmer. The dizzying relief became short-lived as it, instead of being the veil of protection, became the bridge between metal and flesh.
If anything, that made it harder to bear. The small relief was like the taste of a sweet fruit, leaving a sour taste behind as it was taken away after a single bite. He wanted more. No. He needed more. But there would be none. The burning continued. The small light that had granted him a brief reprieve became bitter. A cruel tease, giving him that brief glimpse before snatching it away. A single tear wormed its way past his eyelashes, before evaporating and mingling with the dry sweat that coated his upper skin.
His back seared with pain. As did the skin under the restraints, but he felt that less, struggling still. Sense told him, in a voice almost drowned out by the chaos emitted from sheer pain, that straining further was useless. His bones were already weak. His skin was slowly and painfully melting. His muscles were compromised, perhaps badly so. Even if he could get the leverage, he'd only break something, or compromise his nerves…though the latter would be a blessing in disguise. No nerve, no impulse, and thus no pain.
He couldn't get used to that burning pain. He'd probably never get used to it. No experience was going to build up an immunity for it. No masochistic impulse in his head was going to drive him to enjoy it, to want it. He'd known there had to be a reason why he never heard of anyone burning to death in a suicide attempt. It was unbearable.
An almost animalistic groan bubbled from his lips as he thrashed, constantly moving in the delusion that perhaps the constant shifting would nudge a screw somewhere lose, constantly straining so that it would be the steel, not hard as a rock but malleable, that gives in the end instead of his calcified bones brittle from wear. Even the sharper pain was welcome, because it was quickly lapped up like a dog dying of thirst.
And soon, the pain in his arms and legs had stopped altogether. Perhaps a neve had been pinched. Broken. He couldn't really think. Should his limbs be going numb? Would they still move? His back was still in agony. It was still screaming, and crying out in pain. The numbness vanished into the black hole.
Breathing was difficult, and that just brought back the focus to the pain. Without even being conscious of it, he'd strained to the very limit of his collar so that the structures on the surface of his neck were being compressed and thus compromised. What would happen, he found himself wondering with a hint of deranged, almost desperate, longing, if the blood supply to his brain was stopped? How long would it take before the structure was deprived of oxygen? Two minutes? Three?
The possibility was wonderful. Blissful. And entirely out of his control. When one side was compressed, the other became free. It would never work. Nor was he trying. It was simply the instinct to escape pain that he was obeying, even if the only methods that remotely worked invited more pain as a result. He would have strained far enough to snap his strength if he had the leverage, and the strength. It seemed such a remote possibility. Uncontrollable. Instinct would have driven him towards death to escape his pain. It would drive him to anything, to escape his pain. But there was nowhere to be driven to. Nothing to be driven to. There was only him, bolted down, strapped in an infallible harness, and the searing pain that burnt and melted his back.
Why couldn't he just fall unconscious? Or die? Free from this endless torment with no purpose while blank faces observed behind translucent screens…
He continued to strain and wildly thrash, his mind free of everything but the pain that engulfed the entire posterior surface of his body. Why couldn't it just end? The collar choked him still, tying his breaths, but he gasped with tears trickling, evaporating…It couldn't be helped. It simply couldn't be helped. Instinct forced his mouth open to take another breath, despite the rawness that now persisted. He hadn't the voice to scream. He hadn't for awhile, but still the agony engulfed him. He strained further, feeling the bony projection hard against the metal claw…but he just couldn't go any further. He was bound. Restrained. Not even the instinct that invited him to knock on death's door by throttling himself in the effort of getting away, or snapping his neck in the same labour, could be fulfilled. Instead, it was fruitless trashing. Fruitless struggle. The urge to escape, no matter the pain endured. Because one could not simply sit and take such pain. And yet, at the same time, no-one could deny themselves another gulp of air. It was a cruel, cruel instinct.
And it was an age before it stopped. But the reverberation of pain had been engrafted. It still echoed. Long enough for him not to feel the shackles around him released. Long enough for him not to feel the covers separating him from the outside world. Long enough not to feel the second fire set to his form; the true fire that stripped away the remainder of his flesh to reveal yellowed and greyed bone, tainted with cracks and yet somehow, remarkably, still whole. Still human, after being reduced to the lowest form of animal, prey to instinct alone as they suffered though a trial typically to be observed, perhaps enjoyed, and then disposed of under the guise of being "a failed attempt for the good of humanity".