The fluorescent lights in the cell ceiling hummed into life and once again the routine began. As he heaved himself up from the hard slab that pretended to be a bed, he stared at the seamless white walls. ”Today”, he thought to himself, ”maybe today will be different.” He let out a sigh and tried to shake himself into some semblance of being awake. Soon enough, like every other day since he’d been imprisoned here, they’d force a tray of barely edible food through the slot next to the door and give him almost enough time to eat it before the guards would turn up to drag him away. Every day was the same, and everything was deliberately disorientating, the smallest event choreographed to place him on the back foot. The sad thing was, it had been working. Wherever this was, how long he had been here, even why he was being held had long ago faded away and become meaningless. All he had left was the blind hatred for his captors, and even that was beginning to wear thin. He was tired, tired of the routine, tired of what life had become, everything.
Right on schedule the heavy metal door of the cell slid back with the sound of straining electric motors and two guards in black body armour walked in, one armed with a menacing, high tech looking rifle. Like the room, their uniforms were designed to be faceless and disorientating. Even if it had been the same two men every day, there was no way to tell. Without saying a word they dragged him to his feet, and like every day he’d been here, he habitually held his hands out to be cuffed, a motion so familiar it was almost second nature now. After a silent final check on the shackles, the armed guard forced him into the corridor with his rifle butt. The corridor, the cells, the whole facility was a maze of white walls with black floors harshly lit from above with cold fluorescent strips. Each day his journey was a noticeably different route from the previous, the only other people he ever saw were always another pair of guards, never any other prisoners, more theatrics to try and break his spirit.
After a few minutes in the maze, and it always felt the same amount of time no matter the change in route, they arrived at the imposing steel doors flanked by two more guards, totally unmarked like every other door here but these were clearly important. Without any signal or provocation, the doors slid apart and he was ushered through, his guards sharing a silent nod with their counterparts. Inside was a room slightly larger than his cell dominated by a steel table with a bank of high-tech looking equipment at one end surrounded by heavy steel chairs. Like always, he was marched over to the far side of the table and forcibly sat down. As his energy for resisting had been sapped over time, they employed gradually less and less restraints. By now the guards didn’t even bother, after he had been deposited they just let him be and took up flanking positions by the door on the off chance he could muster enough energy to try something.
The room sat quiet with just the captive and his guards for a short while. It was always like this, he had guessed it was a way to inflict paranoia, but by now it just felt like a waste of everybody’s time. After the amount of time they presumably thought would let him stew, the doors slid back again and a carefully planned dance began anew. Three people entered, and it was always three; two in the dark suits and glasses of a stereotypical secret agent accompanied by one in a white lab coat, who he had figured to be some kind of technician. Though while the roles never changed, the individuals did regularly, or at least so he thought. Everyone here looked, well it was hard to pin down, related maybe? Eerily similar certainly, even across genders everyone was pale with dark hair. Though he thought he could tell them enough apart well enough to tell that they rotated his interrogation team every so often. Sometimes the same people would be present for days on end, sometimes one would be switched and every so often all three at once.
Today the technician was the same woman who had attended to things for the past week or so, but the two agents were definitely new. One seemed more impatient, staring daggers at the technician from behind dark glasses as she attached electrodes to the prisoner, long coiled wires connecting them up to the devices on the table. The impatient agent dismissed the guards with a curt nod, making sure the door was quickly sealed behind them, as his counterpart sat looking over the slate grey document folder the prisoner assumed was his case notes. With one final check on the various electrodes, the technician withdrew to a monitoring computer at the back of the room, the final piece falling into place, now the real performance could begin.
“Detainee… Zed-six-nine-one-delta-eight-six-four-fifty-two…” the standing agent began, with the slow methodical tone of someone reciting from memory, “…I won’t waste all of our time by repeating why you are here, I imagine you’ve heard it enough times by now. We want…”
“I am a citizen of the United States,” interrupted the prisoner wearily on cue, drawing a sceptical look from the seated agent, “…I demand my rights to an attorney and a phone call.”
“Are you quite done? We want to apprehend your associates, and to achieve that we need the equations you used in your creation.” The agents tone had shifted from methodical to more agitated, clearly the prisoner’s stubborn obstinance hadn’t been mentioned to him before hand, “Ideally we would rather you gave up this information willingly, but we have ways of coercion available to us, and we are nothing but patient.” The agent cracked a wry smile. The prisoner had heard his all before, of course, but never had he seen an agent look so much like he was enjoying it. For the first time in ages something had altered in the routine to put him on edge. Still, there was still some determination left in him, just enough to keep resisting.
“I am a citizen of the United…” He began before the agent quickly cut him off, glaring at him.
“Has that ever worked? Through all the time you’ve been here, the amount of times you’ve persisted in asking, has that ever achieved anything other than just wasting everyone’s time?”
The prisoner thought about this for a second. The agent was right, of course, it hadn’t worked yet, it might never work. But without at least an attempt at resisting, without a little spark of hope, what else did he have?
“Well?” The question cut through his thoughts like a razor. Despite the dark glasses, it was obvious the Agent was glaring at the prisoner, barely holding back his agitation. Every other interrogator that had tried to break the prisoner had been cold, calculating, detached, always adhering to the same rigid routine, never showing any emotion. The new approach was jarring, to the point the prisoner was starting to get worried.
“I… I am a citizen of the United States…” he stammered. The agent took off his glasses and slammed his hand on the table,
“I Know What You Are, or what you think you are,” he threw the glasses on the table, “and I am well aware of the delusions you labour under, I’ve seen the damned recordings…”
“X, steady.” The other agent spoke for the first time, his calm, measured tone in stark contrast to his colleague’s ranting. The use of what sounded like a name or a title threw the prisoner, it was the first time he had ever heard them be anything other than anonymous faces.
“…and y’know something, it’s kind of impressive,” X continued, ignoring the interuption, “You’re supposed to be, what, a scientist of some kind? Yet after all this time you’re still not smart enough to figure out that due process doesn’t apply to you. Not after what you’ve done.”
“But…” the prisoner tried to grasp at how to deal with this sudden change in mood “…I’ve done nothing wrong, I couldn’t have…”
“Nothing Wrong?!” X repeated in a mocking tone, “Thats what you all say, every single damn one of you, Scientists and inventors rushing into punching holes in reality without thinking there could be consequences.” X removed his glasses and glared at the prisoner, “Never thinking how much damage you’ll cause until it’s too late. Well we know what will happen, we’ve seen it. Time and time again, alternities wiped out, whole probability streams collapsed, infinities ended in a heartbeat, because some scientist, like you, thought he was clever, thought he was doing nothing wrong.”
“…how?” the prisoner stammered, suffering from information overload. When he was still a scientist, god knows how long ago, he thought, no, he was certain that no one else was working on anything remotely similar. Hell, even he’d stumbled on it by accident.
“Yours isn’t the first alternity to have someone arrogant enough to do what you did,” the seated agent calmly, “not by a long shot. Sometimes it’s a lone scientist like you, sometimes it’s governments and corporations, doesn’t matter in the end, you’re all dangerous. If we…” he thought for a second and corrected himself, “…If the Universe is lucky we manage to stop it before anything happens, but occasionally…”
“But… if the government knew, someone else… surely…”
“We’re not your government,” the seated agent said. X let out a sound like someone who had only ever had laughter described to them before. “We’re not any government, any group from your… world.” The prisoner stared in stunned silence.
“You mean you never figured it out?” X turned to his colleague and delivered another terrifying faux-laugh “I thought you said he was meant to be smart, W.”
The world dropped out from beneath the prisoner, even the little sense he was able to make of his situation had just been destroyed. As he replayed the last few sentences in his head, the sitting agent, the newly identified W, placed a blank note pad in front of him.
“Had it never occurred to you,” he began, his tone more sympathetic than before, “That after all this time, all your protests, how strange it was you’re still here? Wouldn’t someone have noticed you missing? Come looking for you?”
“Are you even aware of how long you’ve been here?” X chided him. All the prisoner could muster was a feeble head shake. X grinned a grin of pure malice, leaned over the table toward the prisoner and told him.
“N…no… That’s impossible”
“To the exact hour.” X moved back to his feet, “We could even get you a mirror if you’d like. You’ve changed quite a bit since we first caught up with you.”
“So you see what we mean when we say we are patient,” W began again, “We have all the time in the world, you do not. Nor do your… associates.”
“You can either give us what we want, or we can wait for time to solve it for us. Your choice,” mocked X.
“But, we are not without mercy,” W’s tone became more sincere, “we aren’t monsters. If you help us,” He gestured to the note pad and laid down a pen, “if you give us the master equations, you won’t have to go back to that cell every cycle.”
“I can go free?!” With what little energy he had the prisoner managed to sound astonished, prompting a snorting laugh from X.
“Not… exactly,” For the first time, W hesitated with his choice of words, “You already know too much, have proven yourself too dangerous. If you help us we will… change your status from prisoner, give you a position in Science Division as an auxiliary if you so desire.” W let the words sink in, “It’s not total freedom, but it must be better than this.”
The occupants of the room fell silent, only the low hum of the interrogation machines competed with the shrill buzzing of the lighting. The prisoner looked down at the pen in front of him. Was all this time worth it? Was one discovery, no matter how world changing, enough to have wasted his life paying for? Were his colleagues… his friends… He sighed and visibly deflated. Was it all a mistake? He looked up at his three captors in the room. Everything about them, even the silent technician, exuded a feel of an irresistible force, of absolute power. They had all the time in the world, they said. That was easy to believe. No matter what he did, how much power, how much life he expended trying to fight, it felt like it would come to nothing. The agents were a force of nature, and he was so very, very tired of this. Slowly, uncertainly, he picked the pen up in a shaking hand and pulled the pad towards him.
“You’re making the right decision,” W reassured, “Think of all you can achieve with us.”
“And all it took was selling out your friends,” The mocking, non-laugh of X punctuated his words, “In the end everyone comes around to our way of thinking one way or another.” The prisoner started to write, beginning with the basics. But X’s quip about his friends managed to relight a small ember of resistance deep in his head. His hand slowed and he looked up.
“It’s been this long… and you still need my equations?”
“Ye-es, we’ve established that, get on with it,” snapped X.
“After all this time,” the prisoner put down the pen, “all this talk, you’ve never managed to crack my device? My friends are still out there?”
“If it’s any consolation,” W’s tone had a tinge of concern now, “your device has proven… elusive to us.”
“All this technology, all this time,” a smile slowly spread across the prisoner’s face, “and nothing.” X had rounded the table and clamped a fist onto his shoulder.
“Finish The Equations. You don’t want to see what happens if you don’t” The prisoner laughed. For the first time in ages he felt the fire of rebellion relight.
“Don’t you get it? I thought you were meant to be smart, X,” He threw the pen away, “I’ve beaten you,” his laughter reached hysterics now, “I’ve won! They’ll keep running and you’ll never be able to fucking find them!”
“You’re willing to throw this all away, for what?” X’s face contorted with rage now, “People you’ve not seen in years?”
“It’s worth everything in the world,” The prisoner stood and looked X straight in his pale blue eyes, still laughing, “and you’ll never understand. That’s why you lost.”
“We’re through here,” sighed W, talking into a concealed microphone in his cuff. Instantly the guards re-entered the room and restrained the prisoner, who was still in hysterics.
“You’ll regret this, you don’t know what we’re fully capable of, but you’ll learn.” X spat the words at the prisoner, “You think you know pain? You’ll see. Get him out of my sight.” The guards dragged the prisoner from the table, and a stabbing pain signalled the technician administering a sedative. Slowly the room went dark. The last thing he saw was X’s twisted features, snarling with pure, visceral hatred.
The fluorescent lights in the cell ceiling hummed into life and once again the routine began. As the prisoner heaved himself up from the hard slab that pretended to be a bed, he stared at the seamless white walls. ”Today”, he thought to himself and grinned, ”today will be different.” He sat up and stared at the cell door, waiting for the next interrogation to begin. This time, he knew he had them.
With thanks to Sandra Barlow, Mark Crawford, Ady Hartill and Stephanie “Heartlilly” Hauke for invaluable assistance in proofing and editing this piece.
This story, along with setting, names, characters and associated imagery is covered by a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License. (CC)2017 Dom “Ndro” Barlow, Some Rights Reserved.