THIS WAY LIES MAYHEM by Ewan McGee – Prolog
Cold. That’s all that matters. The tiles covering the walls and the floor of the room are grimy. Under the yellow light that is dispersed by the single fluorescent tube buzzing and flickering above, they appear an eerie green-blue. That is, green-blue where they aren’t stained with darker shades, the nature of which is unknown to Alex. But the grime doesn’t matter. The stains don’t matter either. The only thing that matters is the cold feeling coming off the tiles, because it helps a little against the ever-present headache. And that’s all Alex can ask for at this point.
It’s not much of a remedy, but Alex knows there will be no other. The painkillers the orderly administered earlier certainly don’t do their name justice. They are probably enough to show up in the bloodstream, which in turn is enough to fulfill the claim of providing medical care, should anyone ever bother to check, Alex thinks.
Still, sitting on the floor in one of the corners of the room, head against the tiled wall, Alex wishes the annoying flicker of the light would stop. And with it the constant humming. That hum – Alex is convinced – doesn’t actually come from the light tube itself, but is fed into the room separately. For ambience. The eighteen-year-old scoffs at that last thought, then flinches, as even this slight movement causes pain to flare up.
The pain comes from everywhere. The stapled gash above the left eye, swollen and shimmering with iridescent colors like the forewings of an exotic beetle. The equally swollen other side of the face – temple, cheek, jaw. The bruised shoulder. The two fingers on the right hand, dislocated, set again and taped together. The reinjured left knee. A dozen bruises, cuts and abrasions. The throbbing head. Especially the throbbing head. Just opening the eyes causes pangs of pain to explode white-hot right inside of Alex’s skull.
The flicker and the hum are exactly the kind of premeditated thing they would do. Since Alex’s arrival at The Institute, everything seems to have been geared toward maximum disorientation and discomfort. Being a private contractor to the Department of Global Net Affairs & Communications, The Institute apparently has more leeway to achieve those goals than the real police would have at one of the regular, overcrowded lockup facilities. The Cambor Institute For The Correction Of Meta-Social Disorders, as it is correctly called. Whatever the fuck that means in theory, Alex thinks, this time wiser than to scoff again.
Alex doesn’t know how long it’s been since the transfer from the small solitary cell to the grimy, tiled room marked only as ‘CI’. There is no way to tell the time. They have taken the wristwatch, of course, like they have taken everything else.
So it could have been fifteen minutes or thirty when the locking mechanism inside the heavy-duty security door starts clicking and rattling again. Or an hour. Or more. Alex keeps the eyes closed, doesn’t turn to see who enters the room.
The steel door swings open with the hiss of decompressing air and a surprising lack of any other sounds. Expensive shoes, made of soft leather, touch the dirty floor. The door automatically swings shut again. This time the locking mechanism doesn’t trigger. With the door still unlocked, the two guards positioned outside can enter within seconds, should the dark-suited man who just entered the room signal them. Not that there is going to be any need for that. Alex can barely move a muscle without being in pain. Forget attacking anyone.
The newcomer moves to the far side of the shiny metal table, one of only two objects in the room that don’t appear grimy. Without acknowledging Alex’s presence, he puts his portable into the slot in the surface of the table. A clacking sound announces that the chair on that side, the second non-grimy object in the room, is now demagnetized and can be moved.
The other chair, on the opposite end of the table, remains fused to the floor. This one is grimy and, unlike the shiny one, has leather straps on the armrests and the front legs. As the man sits down, the portable chirps softly, an application responding to the input on the touch screen.
“Don’t you want to sit down, Alexandra?” the man asks.
The battered and bruised girl doesn’t answer. She doesn’t show any reaction, no sign whatsoever to acknowledge his presence in the room.
With the second chair obstructing his view, Sean Bourdon – simply ‘Bourdon’ on the name tag – has to lean to the side to look at the girl. White slip-on shoes, the right ankle wrapped in a crisp white bandage, the other one bare. Bandage and medical tape on the right hand and wrist. Eyes in the bruised face closed, some dark strands of the slightly curled hair fallen over the shoulder, contrasting harshly with the orange of the jumpsuit that seems a little too short at the legs and arms. Simply from looking at her, he is unable to tell whether the girl is awake or asleep.
His portable tells him that she is not sleeping. The room’s sensors would work better if she was sitting in the empty chair, of course, but even now he can read her vitals quite clearly.
“I take it the sedatives have worn off enough for you to understand me,” Bourdon tries again. After a little pause, “Alexandra?”
He isn’t impatient. Nor does the lack of a response annoy him. A lot of them start out that way, he thinks. He has seen enough of it in his ten years of interrogation, four of them as Agent Bourdon, the six years since without a title or rank in the much-better-paying private sector. Benefits over titles, that’s how his former mentor called it when he recruited him to work for The Institute.
Eventually, she’ll talk. They all talk. Well, most of them. If nothing happens to them beforehand.
“I would like to discuss a number of things with you, Alexandra,” Bourdon says calmly. Discuss. A soft word. Much better than saying he has questions or that he wants answers. Still, the girl doesn’t reply, doesn’t move. Bourdon taps the screen of his portable.
The flicker from the light tube and the hum coming from the hidden loudspeaker are gone, turned down gradually since his arrival. He wouldn’t want to sit like this for even five minutes. Let alone the forty-five minutes he let the girl wait in the room alone.
“You know, if you are cooperative and talk to me, there is a good chance that your stay here will be cut short.”
“But if you don’t talk to me,” he continues, as calm as before, “my report can’t possibly be positive. And you know what that means.”
It’s not like Bourdon cares. It’s not his job to evaluate. He is there to ask questions. Whatever the answers, whether there are any or not, he doesn’t decide what happens with the girl next. Someone decides. When that happens, Bourdon will have interrogated another subject, and another, and another. There are so many of them lately.
“You could spend a long time here,” he finishes the thought, softly prodding for a reaction. No cooperation means a longer stay for the girl, means more money for The Institute from the government for dealing with those anti-social subjects. If anything, the fact that this subject isn’t willing to talk is a positive outcome for him. One more interrogation jotted down in his performance evaluation as financially beneficial.
He waits a little longer, watches the girl’s vitals on the screen in front of him, not seeing any changes, no spike in the reactions that would be invisible to the naked eye.
“So, I am to assume you don’t want to talk,” he finally says, very matter of fact. “Not about why you are here?” The pause Bourdon makes can best be called rhetoric. “Not about your motives? About what you’ve done, why you’ve done it? About who made you do it? Maybe all of this isn’t your fault. Maybe there is no reason for you to be here.”
Very few keep silent for so long. Bourdon checks the vitals on the screen again. No, definitely not sleeping.
“Maybe you have an explanation or an excuse for what you have done. No? Maybe a statement you want to make. No?”
He wonders just how many drugs they pumped into the girl. He remembers what he has read in her file. Three days in a solitary cell at The Institute, before that the GNC insta-process that brought her here, before that one day in jail, before that two days in a secure hospital. Six days since her arrest. Maybe it’s the drugs that make her so unresponsive. But whatever they injected her with so far, it will be nothing compared to what she’s in for if they keep her at The Institute. There will be days she won’t even be able to tell him her own name, even if she wanted to.
“You don’t want to talk about your friends?” Bourdon asks, looking at the screen rather than the girl. There, a spike in the visual representation of her reaction on the screen. He looks up from the portable.
She turns her head slowly, very slowly, eyes open now. Her face flinches, as even this careful movement seems to cause pain. Two hazel eyes, one of them red around the iris from ruptured blood vessels, stare right at him.
For a moment, former Agent Bourdon is taken aback. He has seen a lot in over a decade of service, public and private sector. But the expression on the girl’s face is something he doesn’t come across often. Definitely not in someone her age.
There is murder in the girl’s eyes.
When she speaks, her voice is raspy and breaks even as she says only two words.
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