I Spy (Story)

Honestly, pubs appear to be good for me. I knocked together the following story in 4 hours (and 4-5 pints) whilst sat in a local pub. And to my drink-befuddled mind it’s not too bad. It was pretty fun writing in the first person for the first time in a while – although given what happens to the protagonist, maybe this should be a cause for concern… Also quite fun flipping between tenses – I’ve found I default to past tense if not careful.

I Spy
by Ian Peters

Barrie continues to drone on. Behind him, the early afternoon sun slips between the slats in the shades, dust motes twinkling in the light. Skyward city glitters through the window, bright in the sun, a contrast to the grey artificial light in meeting room 1013A.

“And so you see, if we don’t allot sufficient time to point 3 on the agenda, likely as it will be that the discussion will segue to also cover AARF, then the entire meeting will slip. I’d like therefore to allocate an extra 10 minutes to point 3, which time can be taken from the AoB at the end.”

Barrie importantly sits back and looks pointedly at the meeting chair.

“Very well, and very well put Barrie. Now, to point 4. I think it can be merged with point 7…” The chair’s voice continues the self-important, tedious drone which has characterised this meeting, whose sole purpose is to discuss the plans for a meeting later in the week. I phase out again, and continue to look out through the window, keeping up the patina of an appearance of attention by periodic nodding and shaking of my head.

I run through my to-do list for today. Happily there isn’t too much left. After this meeting (90 minutes to discuss the agenda for a 60 minute meeting – an impressive waste of time even by Secu-corp standards) I have to catch up with the messages and memos which no-doubt have been accumulating whilst I’ve been sat here, and then I can head home. Marcie has asked me to get some groceries, and I should probably have a look in the shops for some form of anniversary present for her. Hopefully, with leaving work early I should be able to sneak in some time to sit in my customary spot in the park, soaking up the sun, peace, and quiet, before heading home. Oh, and I had better update the fantasy spaceball league.

“Victor, anything else you’d like to add?”

My mind snaps back to the meeting. Who knows what had been said. And frankly, who cares? “Nope, I think all my queries have been handled.” I throw a smile at the room.

With that, this particular waste of my time is over. We shuffle out, mouthing inoffensive small talk, and shortly I am back in my particular cubicle.

Happily it appears to be a light afternoon for inter- and intra-office communications. One memo from HR to skip over and click the “I confirm I have read” button. A couple of easily answered queries, which frankly anyone with access to the Secu-corp search engine, or a brain, could have answered. And now I can focus on my main interest.

I had begun an small fantasy spaceball league a couple of years ago. The null-gravity successor to ice hockey, its violence, frenetic play, and the pure randomness of three-dimensional action had always drawn me in. At first it had just been a game for a small number of friends, a way to compete for a tiny prize fund, and something to add some fun to a dull work day. Now I was managing some two hundred accounts, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to have to spend several hours each day dealing with the trades, scoring, and disagreements that arise whenever more than one person does something. In fact, if it wasn’t so important for my unofficial job, I’d probably have packed it in by now.

As it was though, I had to send out a status update. I began typing, describing recent news and an update on the current league tables. I looked down to confirm the date – yep, the thirteenth day of the third month. Accidentally, or so it seemed, I put an extra space between the sixteenth and seventeenth words of the second paragraph.

Message sent, and the league now up-to-date for another day, it’s time to go home. I lock my computer, and physical file stores, accidentally forgetting to replace a data-slab. It remains sitting in my trouser pocket, heavy with company confidential data.

My early escape allows me a quick exit from the grocery shopping. On the way out I snag a copy of News of the Continuum, and let my feet carry me to the nearby central park. I step through the park entrance and feel the weight dissolve from my shoulders. The grass has been cut recently, the scent heavy in the air. Butterflies and small birds flit through the late afternoon sunlight, cruising a light breeze kicked up by the approaching dusk.

My normal spot is free, a bench near a tinkling fountain. A brief hint of mist brushes my face as the breeze gusts, refreshing without dampening. At peace, I peruse the newspaper, absorbing without believing the one-sided reporting of ‘facts’. Relaxed, I cross my legs to prop up the paper, and the data-slab slips out of my pocket, coming to rest, hidden, in the long grass remaining by the foot of the bench.

Task done for the day, a stab of adrenaline flushes my system. Even after two years, I still feel the rush every time I make a drop. A smile creeps onto my face, masked by the beatific peace others expect from sitting in such a relaxed place, on such a beautiful evening.

The peace, and the smile, have dissolved within an hour of my getting home.

A proforma greeting with Marcie, followed by an inevitable nagging. Who knew that there was apparently such a huge difference between types of penne? Apparently the organic brown penne is wildly different to the brown penne, and inevitably I have gotten the wrong one.

An average dinner follows – Marcie is only marginally better than I am at cooking – followed by the expected soap-operas – Marcie’s choice, of course. There’s an interesting news documentary on, which I try to pay attention to, whilst responding appropriately to the suddenly chatty wife. The necessity of paying attention to that conversation has been dulled by years of similar conversations; an automated Pavlovian response has taught me the correct responses to situation x (what a bitch), situation y (what happened then?), and situation z (that sounds awful).

The evening continues as have a thousand before, and then it’s time for bed. A surge of marital affection stirs me to a kiss, and the glimmerings of foreplay. An urge rebuffed even before it has really started. Apparently we need to be up early tomorrow. I roll back over, and try to sleep.

In the stories, in movies, ‘they’ always come in the night. No matter who the baddies are, we suffer a primal fear of what happens when our eyes are closed. There’s even a logic to it – the body relaxes in a deep sleep, the circadian rhythms slowing the body’s metabolism, the reactions dulled as the need for activity approaches its nadir. In fiction, they always come at night, using the victim’s biological weaknesses against them.

Apparently, this is true not just in fiction. The crash of the front door being smashed inwards brings me groggily awake. I struggle in the bed, trying to free myself from the tangle of bedclothes, no idea what response is necessary but body certain that one will be. I tear my eyes open, but even the minimal light of the bedside clock sears them shut again, 04:01 burned into my retina. I grab at consciousness, to a soundtrack of shouts and the thud of battle-shod feet. They come for me, and a sharp spike of pain in my neck jars me finally completely awake. But too late. I drop back into unconsciousness.

A dull throbbing in my mouth announces my return to consciousness. I try to open my eyes but the bright light forces them immediately closed again – the light is so bright that I swear I can see a network of veins in my eyelids. I try to raise an arm to shield out the glare, and feel the rough bite of straps on my arms. Unable to move arms or legs, I probe the inside of my mouth with my tongue – the roughly textured flesh and a taste of iron where enamel should be.

“Good morning, Mr. Kraznowsky” The voice is urbane, gentlemanly, comfortable in my ears.

I turn my head towards it, squeeze a pin-prick of space between eyelids, and seek out the source.

“My apologies. You have been asleep for a few hours.”

The light burning into my skull suddenly disappears. I open my eyes, feeling the eye-lashes come unglued. My sight falls on a man, thin almost to the point of emaciation. A well fitting uniform, all dark blues and blacks, except the bright steel of a Gordian knot on one breast. I try to speak, croak out a question, but nothing seems to work properly. Little more than a grunt escapes my bruised lips.

“Please, relax for the moment. Your mouth is no-doubt a little dry. Guard, a little water for our friend please…”

No liquid has ever tasted so sweet. The trickle of water barely reaches my gullet – almost every drop appears to be absorbed by the tongue and palate on the way down.

“I must begin by apologising for the surgery. We have had some unfortunate experiences, suicide pills hidden in teeth, that sort of thing. Very difficult to detect by x-ray. The only safe answer is removal. Of course,” a smile meant to be comradely and apologetic, “if you’re found innocent then we will of course replace them. Better than replace them in fact, we’ll furnish you with the best that money can buy.” Another smile in the dim light.

He looks down at a folder in his hands. “So, you are Victor Kraznowsky, formerly of 1138 Fempton Arcade, Skyward City. Grade 17 manager at Secu-corp. Married to Marcie Kraznowsky, nee Schubert, six years ago on…” he looks up, “congratulations on your anniversary next week.”

He looked down again. “No children, assorted friends of no real consequence. B-level security clearance as of three years ago,” he looked up again, catching my eye, “and a spy for the United Planets.”

I feel my bowels loosen. Neither fight nor flight are given the freedom to act, all I can do is struggle ineffectually in my bonds as the reality of the situation unfolds on my drug-dulled mind.

“Would you like to confess, now, before we have to begin more, ahem, distasteful questioning?”

My interrogator has the good grace to actually look embarrassed by the latter, as though he really wants to avoid the next step. My mind whirrs into an approximation of action. My disappearance will eventually be noticed. I owe it to my friends, my co-believers in the rightness of the U.P. cause, to hold out and given them time to escape.

“No? Very well. I’m sorry we have to do this. Know however that we’re not going to do any permanent damage. Yet. All you have to do to stop the pain, is speak. Just admit your guilt, and we can stop the pain.”

He steps back from the table I am strapped to, and allows a black-robed man access to my cruciform body. I hear the clink of metal on metal as he reaches down for a first instrument. My bowels finally let go, and the stench fills the air. I feel embarrassed, of all things. Embarrassed that I have messed myself. And then the first touch of metal on my skin and such irrelevant concerns disappears.

They begin with my feet, and then move to my other limbs. Thin slivers of pain as slick blades cut in to sensitive skin, followed by shards as exposed nerve endings are stroked. Gouts of fire as nails are removed. The sharp sting as small, deep, cuts are made, followed by the slowly increasing agony as they are levered apart, skin and flesh tearing.

I thrash around, trying to escape, but am held firmly in place.

“Who do you work for? How were you indoctrinated? How long have you been a spy?”

I throw my head backwards, trying to knock myself into unconsciousness, until they bind it in place. Deprived of motion, my mind thrashes in place of my body.

“Who do you work for? How were you indoctrinated? How long have you been a spy?”

Swear-words flood from my mouth, incoherent in pain and anger. I begin to black out, but am hauled back to reality through drugs trickling through a drip in my arm.

“Who do you work for? How were you indoctrinated? How long have you been a spy?”

More pain. The delightful approach of blackness, again torn aside at the last minute, as I again feel the inside of my elbow go cold.

“Who do you work for? How were you indoctrinated? How long have you been a spy?”

Finally, my mind manages to escape the present, seeking refuge in the past. The pain slips away, becoming a dull ache in the background, a boil I try not to brush up against.

Two years ago. A bar in the depths of Skyward City.

“Seriously, it’s like that thing with the industrial plant on Apophis-8. I was involved in the audit of that, and seriously, what the news said was bullshit!” A few too many beers had me slurring by this point in the evening.

“Wha’d’ya mean?” Harold, one of my drinking compatriots for the night, slurring more than I was. “Terrorist blew that place up – everyone knows.”

I shook my head. “Nope. Bullshit. Was an idiot controller, screwed up the flow. But you know how it goes, he was brother of someone-or-other, and so…”

“Terrorists,” quietly completed Peter, another drinking buddy.

“Yep. Makes you think though. If they’re reporting bullshit on the things you know, what about the rest…” I leaned back, having successfully made my main philosophical point.

The conversation had continued in a similar vein for most of the night, although my recollection of it was rather hazy. The next morning, head heavy with a hangover even the oxy pills hadn’t managed to shift, I stopped in at my favourite morning joint for a cup of coffee and some unhealthy food.

“Morning, how’s the head?” I lifted my bloodshot eyes to be greeted with Peter’s grave visage.

“Hey!” I let loose with far too much vigour, to be punished with another stab of pain.

“Mind if I sit?”

“Sure. Want some?” I pushed over the greasy fry-up in front of me. It had seemed a great idea, but now the assorted components appeared to be disagreeing within me.

Peter shook his head, an action I wouldn’t have wanted to try, and fixed me with a serious-looking face.

“Victor. We’re friends, right?”

I nodded.

“What you were saying last night, it really got me thinking. You’re absolutely right that most of what we see in the so-called news is complete rubbish. And it’s worse than that. The system is full of self-serving people, and where promotion is in theory merit based, we know that’s rubbish. How many times have you seen somebody’s cousin, or brother, or whatever, promoted ahead of you…?”

Anger stirred within me. This had just happened in fact; I’d been lobbying for a promotion for a few months now, only to be beaten at the last moment by some pimply 18-year-old cousin of the regional director.

“How much do you know about the United Planets…?” Peter fixed me with a glare. For some reason I knew this was a serious question, heavy with portents for my future.

I breathed deeply, and forced my dehydrated, toxin befuddled, dendrites into action.

“Well, I know what the news says… But then we’re at war, so what else would it say?”

“Exactly. And while the Continuum lies to itself, what chance do you think there is for peace? How can there be peace with the maniacal monsters the press describe the United Planets as being?

I’m a member of a small group of people, on both sides, who are trying for peace, through truth. We share information between each other, to find out what is really going on, to get real information, not just rumour and hyperbole…”

I looked quizzically at him as he tailed off. What he was saying stirred my interest. The idea of getting the truth, from both sides… I honestly didn’t believe that the United Planets were the evil monsters described in the press – they were human after all. And it would be really interesting to know what was going on. And they wanted me!

I was nervous with the idea though. “But isn’t that treason? Won’t we get in trouble?”

Peter smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ve been doing this for years, since before the war began. You know I’m involved in inter-planetary trading, well these are all friends and colleagues I’ve been trading with for years. It’s not like we’re sharing military information, anyway. We’re just a group of intelligent people, who believe in the truth, and want to look beyond the spin and lies that our governments are trying to blind us with.”

I was convinced. To be honest, I’d been looking for an opportunity like this for a while, although I hadn’t realised it. I was bored with my life, unhappy with my work, disgusted with my government and the overall society around me. It took a little while longer for Peter to fully get me on side, but really I was convinced from the start.

Peter then introduced me to the concept of what he called ‘tradecraft’. At his urging I started a fantasy sports league, and convinced a few friends to join. Messages sent to the league were a perfect way to communicate with others in the group. An extra space here, an obscure word choice there, it was easy to pass basic messages around, hidden in plain sight.

And where more information was needed, I was introduced to dead-drops. Places I could go and drop off or pick up data-cards full of information. Places such as the foot of the bench near a certain fountain in the park, or a certain gap between seats on the mass-transit system. In my mind I rattled through all the locations, as my consciousness avoided the distant ball of pain, and the droning voice of my interrogator.

Awake again, and conscious. My body is a scatter of dull aches, but the sharp pains which had threatened my sanity have disappeared. The room is empty, as far as I can see with the limited mobility I have – my head is still strapped in place. I must have passed out from the pain. The dim light in the room remains, I don’t know how long I have been here. There’s no hint of natural light to provide cues to my internal body clock.

I hear a door creak open, the groan of rusted metal jarring with the surgical precision of the torturers, and the medicinal smell of bleach and chemicals.

“Welcome back, Mr. Kraznowsky.”

My voice strains against chords shredded by screaming. A statement meant to sound strong and positive comes out as a croak. “I go somewhere?”

The interrogator steps into my eyesight, and fixes me with a glare both humorous and pitying.

“You died, Mr. Kraznowsky. But death is no escape for you. I must admit to being impressed however – your ability to survive pain deserves respect, especially given an apparent lack of any training. You have done very well, but… all stories must end Mr. Kraznowsky. And this is real life, not some story where the plucky hero is rescued at the last moment. There is no magical rescue, and a princess to marry.

So far, we have avoided any permanent damage. Everything that has happened to you is reversible, everything will heal. So far.

Unfortunately time is now becoming a factor. Unless you start naming names, we shall need to use more, ahem, damaging techniques…”

I steel myself. This has become a conflict of wills. I know that at best a bullet is my only likely escape, but when all that is left is death, how you die is all that remains to you. I steel myself. I know my own limits, and know I can beat them.

I think I do, anyway. They begin by flaying the skin off my toes, and then the fingers on my left hand. Each scrape, each slice, followed by a request to name names. Were before a single blade would scrape over a small cluster of nerves, now every digit feels on fire. I try to hold back my voice, but it is only seconds before screams echo around the room.

The way has been opened for me now though. My mind chases after the escape route from before. I seek, and find, the refuge of my memories. My mind escapes the pain of the present by replaying the comforts of the past.

Happier times. Groups of like-minded individuals discussing, arguing, deliberating. Armed with the truth, shod with righteousness, clad with an anger at the society in which it existed, and especially the falseness and injustice of the government that led it.

Mario, the restauranteur. Gleefully participating in the humour his name, and selected trade, together provided. Happily sharing the gossip he learnt serving the tables of the high and mighty.

Kurt, the army officer. Passed over for promotion, bitter, always keen to share his knowledge of what was actually happening in the war, especially when he could depict his seniors as fools.

Joseph, the university professor. Always on the look-out for like-minded souls within the student body. Laying a groundwork for the future, while keeping the group grounded in the present, feeding back the tensions and the concerns of the next generation.

An army of faces comforted me, and helped me avoid the terrible things they were doing to my body. An army to continue the fight for truth. An army which I must protect with my life.

As though bidden, I felt the darkness approaching, and I welcomed it.

Again, I awaken, my mind flashing into consciousness. But this time the scenery around me has changed.

I’m no longer lain, spread-eagled on a steel table. Now I am sat upright, in front of a steel table. My limbs remain restrained. In front of me sits a piece of paper, empty but for a scant scattering of text half way down.

Again, the incongruous creak of a rusty hinge as my interrogator enters. The look on his face is different this time though. No longer the pitying look of someone being forced to play a horrible part. No longer the look of respect, as of a soldier to his fallen enemy. All I can think of it that he looks smug. Horribly, repellently smug.

“Welcome back again, Mr. Kraznowksy. And welcome to the most important decision left in your life…

You have two options left to you now. That you are a traitor there is no doubt, however we’re not vindictive. And there is a useful role for the penitent sinner.

Option one is to sign the confession in front of you, and swear to it on camera. If you do so, we will put you in the work camps. Whilst not a pleasant place, there is still some joy there, and you can live a constructive useful life for many years.

Option two is death, by spacing. For you, your wife, and however many others we can be bothered to get rid of.

In either case, your guilt is proven. Sign the confession, and the proof will remain a private thing. Don’t sign and your guilt will be spread across the airwaves. We will publicly destroy your name, and that of every friend, colleague and family member. Those who don’t kill themselves will never work again. They will live out their days beginning in the streets, throwing tricks for pocket change.

You have 15 minutes to decide.”

The interrogator throws a pen on the table, and nods at a person behind me. I feel hands on my arms, and suddenly am free to move my right arm. Blood rushes into the limb, leaving a fire behind.

“Oh, and in case you were wondering what evidence we may have…”

He steps out, and I can hear the shriek as the door behind me opens and shuts. For a moment, there’s silence, and then a voice starts up. It starts off quiet, at the limits of my hearing. As it gets louder, I can hear a slight slurring to the voice, undoubtedly a side-effect of drugs. The voice is describing a conversation with a man called Peter. It clicks. The voice is mine.

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