by M A Spencer
green tea with lemon
I fidget until the small handcuffs feel slightly more comfortable. My hands rest on my lap, dirty fingernails and red blotches against the smooth chrome. The ugly red light along the edge of the left cuff blinks up at me, a monotonous reminder of my captivity. I look away. The room is small and low, a subterranean hole. I expected a place that had witnessed such pain, and anger, and fear to have echoes of it, a shimmer of revulsion, but there was an airless absence instead; as if the walls themselves had turned away from the horror.
The heavy metal door opens abruptly and two men enter. Neither of them are remarkable. The guard is masked of course, he stands himself by the door, and I barely look at him further. He won’t have any influence over what is to come. The other man looks like an old-fashioned bank teller or a supermarket manager, when they still had supermarkets. Middle aged, slightly fat, medium brown hair, a mid-price suit: an assimilation of averageness. He sits down opposite me, no table to separate us, just a dirty concrete floor and empty air. I wonder how many people he had seen that day, or was it night, how many lies and confessions he had heard. Or had he saved himself for me, the prize catch.
‘Prisoner 7693: Ayla Ravencroft, female, aged thirty-eight, sector five leader of the anti-government terrorist group known as the HFA, or more commonly The Emeralds. You are charged with numerous counts of hijacking, theft of Level 3 medical resources, unlawful distribution of Level 3 medical supplies, murder, manslaughter, terrorism, sedition, and disruption of society.’ He sounds bored as he reads the screen, the charges were fictional and meaningless, they didn’t need a real reason to put you in here. ‘I am Mr Carpenter. You are, of course, facing execution, but first we wish to know if you will cooperate?’
‘Yes’ I reply; my voice has an odd quality. Perhaps it is the room muffling it, perhaps it is that I have not spoken aloud in days, perhaps it is because I am disassociating from this whole situation to save my sanity. Carpenter looks mildly surprised, it is probably the strongest expression to cross his features in weeks.
‘That’s good to hear Mrs Ravencroft, we will need the names of all your associates, your plans, your bases, your weapons, and anything you know of the other sectors.’ He speaks carefully, neatly trimming the ends of his words like pruning a plant.
‘I can give you everything I know, and I know an awful lot. But I have some conditions’ I say, just like I practiced over and over again in my head. Carpenter breathes slightly harder through his nose; this could almost be mistaken for a laugh.
‘Mrs Ravencroft, you are not in a position to make demands, the best we can offer is mercy for your execution, a lethal injection rather than exposure. If the information is good enough you can perhaps even save your life entirely.’
‘This is what I propose: I will give up everything I know, in writing, every detail and every rumour. In return you will take me out of here, put me in a hotel room with clean clothes and food. Then you will find my husband and you will bring him to me. And we both live.’ My voice does not waver, I sound composed, I concentrate on holding myself together and timing my words slowly. I do not think of my husband even as I speak of him. My head prickles and pulses, how long since I had water? I remember watching a documentary, many years ago, about a man who climbed 3000 feet up a rock face with no ropes. I feel like that is what I am doing here, one tiny miscalculation and I will fall screaming into oblivion.
‘Why would we do that? We can gain this information through other means.’ Carpenter says, it is not a threat, merely a fact.
‘You mean torture?’
‘Yes, torture.’ He replies, there is no trace of humanity. Perhaps he isn’t even human, maybe they turned the sex doll tech into interrogator tech. This is a comforting fairy-tale. He is quite real, it isn’t the first time humans have shed their ability to feel and care.
‘It won’t work.’ I say quietly. I aim to look almost apologetic as I say this, my shoulders hint at a shrug. The ill-fitting grey overalls immediately tug back at me, even my clothes imprison me in here.
Carpenter seems almost irritated, he shifts in his chair and smooths his suit. I wonder if he has a family, does he come home, wait in the rinse, only to find a jaded wife having a v-wine party and kids enthralled in VR. An odd thought, but perhaps this sick job is the most amount of face-to-face human interaction he has. He regards me again. I remain totally still; all my energy is devoted to this exchange.
‘Yes, many people think they can resist, but let me give you an idea of what will happen if you refuse to cooperate. You will be put back in a cell, some nights the key for your cell will be given to a group of the soldiers, they can come and do as they please for a few hours. You will be water-boarded, of course. Locked in a box. Starved. And if it is necessary we have someone to cut you; your eyes, your mouth, your genitals. Nobody holds out.’ I know all this. Sometimes they let people go after the torture, let them wander around for a few weeks or months before they die. It is an excellent deterrent. It deters me. I am terrified. I have never been particularly brave about physical pain; I was always a thinker not a fighter. I fear the rape most, as I am meant to. At least it is not gender specific, they do the same to men, women, and to the ‘gender traitors’ most of all. Luckily, I don’t need to lie about being brave, not entirely.
‘Oh I don’t think I will hold out forever, but it could take a few weeks, even a few months. And I could break too much, right? My mind could snap and I could go insane, then how do you trust what I say, especially the fine details.’ If this gambit doesn’t work then I hope I really do go insane before too long, but I fear it is unlikely. I have never snapped. Reality will not give me up, however badly it treats me.
Carpenter seems to be weighing what I say, I sense I have hit on a recurring problem. How many times have they pushed too hard and been left with the ravings of a mad creature? ‘We would still have a lot of valuable information and we don’t negotiate with terrorists, especially ones we have already arrested and have in our cells.’ He says out loud, but I can tell he is evaluating my offer. I decide to push on, I have to. For him, for us.
‘Right now, everyone knows I have been arrested and they are scrambling to move and hide before I break and tell you anything. Say I hold out the most valuable information, like the identities of the other sector leaders and the November 11th plan, for, I dunno, three weeks? It will be useless. They will have changed everything. If you put me in a hotel room and bring me my husband you can every piece of information by tomorrow evening.’ I am nearly panting from the effort of speaking at such length, from keeping the fear out of my eyes, from not wailing as I sell my soul. This only works if I match Carpenter’s nonchalance about pain and death.
‘Do you think we are stupid Mrs Ravencroft? You could give us nonsense and then escape, this is clearly your plan.’ Carpenter sounds triumphant, as if he has solved a riddle. I try not to sneer. How did I get caught by these idiots?
‘No, that isn’t my plan at all; I am flattered that you think I could escape in the quadrant centre with no PassID, no bitkart, and no contact set up. Besides, you chipped me the moment I was brought here, so if I did get back to the others I would be leading you right to them. And they would shoot me on sight for it. I can’t go back even if I wanted to.’ This is undoubtedly true and I feel a bottomless sadness as I say it aloud. I know too that they believe I will try and hold out to give them time, or even commit suicide to protect them. They would never dream I would sacrifice them.
‘You care about them? Then why are you so quick to betray them?’ Carpenter asks, quickly reading my whisper of emotion. He may look banal but he’s fast, I have to be more careful. Yet, he seems slightly more human now, as if this was a genuine conversation. And it is a fair question.
‘I believe in the fight, I believe we have to try and build a world which sustains life and dignity. We have a right to be healthy, not in exchange for work but as a basic right. We deserve the vaccines as much as you. And the trouble is you can only keep threatening us with exposure to the viruses so many times before we simply don’t care if we live or die anymore, that’s why you need to do all this,’ I say gesturing at the unfeeling walls ‘you are getting desperate’
‘We are far from desperate Mrs Ravencroft. You sound like a snow-cialist. Vaccines cost money, why would we just give them away to anyone? They have to be earned. Safety is a privilege. Those who contribute and obey the law are welcomed. Those who steal and beg face the natural consequences of their actions. Besides, we are not the ones setting off nail bombs in airports.’ Carpenter replies, he speaks slowly. I can’t tell how much he really believes.
‘Airports are guaranteed to be full of the maskless, they are good targets, why should we be the only ones to die? Maybe our methods are brutal, but it is nothing compared to holding a death sentence over millions of peoples’ families in exchange for free labour!’ I pause. I know I have to speak the truth next. My mind resists like a horse unwilling to cross a dangerous bridge. I know I am giving into the same selfish impulse that their whole rotten system is built on and that is why they keep control, because who wouldn’t try and keep their loved ones safe even at the expense of their own freedom or dignity? I hesitate further, not wanting to be this vulnerable. ‘I love my husband more than I care about The Emeralds and the fight. I want to keep him safe.’
Carpenter frowns at me. ‘Why would you tell us this? We can have him brought here you know; we can torture him in front of you instead.’ Carpenter looks excited now, as if he might go and order this right now. I suppose one has to find job satisfaction even as a ghoul.
‘If you hurt him I will bite my own tongue off or smash my head against the wall until I have brain damage, or whatever it takes to prevent me from being useful to you.’ My voice rises, but stays firm. Mentally I stagger, fear scratching the inside of my skull. My stomach clenches and roils. The stakes are too high; this gamble is too dangerous, what if I get him hurt instead of save him? But if I don’t try he will die anyway, The Emeralds will abandon him now I am no longer there. Promises were made, but within four months or less he will be without the vaccines, and it will be arranged that he cannot find work to earn them back because of who I am. This is a desperate hand to play. But Carpenter frowns in thought, maybe I am convincing him…
‘Years of fighting us and stealing from the medical deliveries, if your husband was so important to you why not just get a Level 3 job? You are clearly intelligent enough, you have a computer science degree and you had a decent career before you joined them, or so I read. You could have had a normal life?’ I wonder if Carpenter is sincerely curious, perhaps he doesn’t quite understand how humans work.
‘I could have done, you’re right if I had kept the life I had we would have been protected. But what about all the other husbands and wives? Why should we get to live in peace because I managed to get a degree? Do people deserve to die because they aren’t smart enough or rich enough or useful enough?’ I used to say these words with passion, with a burning, angry fire in my voice. In here I just sound weary, mildly indignant at most.
‘But now you only care about your husband?’ Carpenter asks. His voice and expression are flat. I can’t tell if he is seeking some kind of vindication from me, confirmation that I have capitulated to their system, or whether he is still trying to figure out my inner feelings. Perhaps both.
‘Yes. Imagine the person you love most in the world. Imagine them in one of the Death Tents, lying on those filthy, pathetic camp beds. Lonely and terrified and in pain and misery as their body collapsed. What would you do to stop that Mr Carpenter? Who would you kill or betray?’ I spit this at him. At myself. I see a flicker cross his face and I realise that’s why he is here, he wanted to be on the side of the powerful and now he can’t find his way back. He is lost within the beast. He smooths his averageness back into himself, brushing away anything stronger.
‘Say we acquiesce, and you give us good intel, what then?’
‘You have images of shooting both of us in the head the moment I give you the information no doubt, and you could do that I suppose. But the dead are useless. Alive I have the potential to decode information, supply identities, give insight into how The Emeralds communicate and make decisions. Why not give it a year? Keep us in the hotel room for a year and then decide?’ I go to spread my hands in a ‘why not’ gesture, the cuffs snap tight. I am utterly unimposing in this setting. And yet. Carpenter is still entertaining the possibility.
‘And if after a year we decide to execute you both anyway?’ He asks, his tone bordering on sly. The thought is bizarre, but I think he rather likes me.
‘Then I will have had a year with my husband, where we are both safe from harm. And a quick death.’ I reply simply and honestly.
The hotel room is old-fashioned and ugly. Daylight filters in from chipped and sagging shutters. The air is musty, with a hint a disinfection underneath. The décor is supposed to be gold and wine red, but age and ill-use has made it a mess of piss yellow and tinted brown. I nearly cry because it is so beautiful.
I sit at the desk and write. Pages and pages of names, places, dates, and numbers. Years of work. Friends, colleagues, brothers and sisters in arms. I write and write, my soul bleeds as I do it. But I keep doing it because I made a vow to love and protect, and the pure cruel and perfect truth is that nobody else matters nearly as much.
Hours pass. The door opens. Carpenter walks in followed by a guard leading a man with a bag over his head. I glance down. The black lines of the tattoos on his hands mean they have not tricked me. It really is him. I nearly howl in relief. I pick up the papers and hand them to Carpenter. He flicks through them, carefully scanning and assessing the information. I hope I have given enough to earn the price of our lives, I hope I have left out enough so that I will remain useful. There is a long silence, I would pray but I am damned now anyway. Carpenter looks at me, I feel like he wants to say something, but instead he turns and nods to the guard who leaves. Carpenter places two syringes on the table, the dark green logo glints up at us, and then follows him out. He pauses in the doorway, ‘one year’ he says quietly. I grab my husband’s hand and pull the bag off his head.
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