one

Jonah

The hole smells like pure despair — a mix of stale sweat, piss, and fear. It’s pitch black inside the room. He keeps it dark on purpose.

In the dark, prisoners’ worst fears come alive. The darkness is where fear thrives.

This is Mordecai’s standard procedure. He’s got terror down to a science.

The subject is seized in the middle of the night and dragged out of his suite by bots. One of us is assigned to background on the subject. We’re supposed to learn everything. If the information he holds is valuable enough, we’ll coordinate with the bots on Earth. We can usually bring a loved one into custody, but all we need is a name.

Once we have the name of a wife, girlfriend, parent, or child, we have all the ammunition we need. Ninety percent of subjects will give up what they know at the mere threat of violence. They’re not military. They haven’t been trained to hold up under interrogation. They’re scientists, coders, and engineers. It’s almost exclusively men that we deal with, though we have had a few female vigilantes.

It’s unusual for someone to have no ties; there’s always someone we can leverage. But when I’ve been working all day and the subject is a loner, I know I’m going to be up all night.

This guy has already been in the hole twelve hours. Research on his loved ones turned up nothing. His parents were killed in Iran forty years ago. His sister lives in Berlin. His neighbors describe him as an eccentric loner. His old co-workers barely remember him.

Even on Elderon he’s managed to stay relatively anonymous. His colleagues all say the same thing: Farnam was quiet but efficient. Nobody seems to know what he was working on. He received his assignments directly from company leadership.

Maintaining order on Elderon has been my assignment for the last three years. It’s a tricky dance on a space station filled with the brightest minds from Earth. Attempted sabotage is always just around the corner. Heading off potential coups is a full-time job.

“Who are you?” asks the man, his voice betraying his fear. He doesn’t have an Iranian accent. He came to the States when he was four.

The dark has already started to work on him, but he isn’t spouting nonsense yet. That usually comes around hour thirty-six, but I’ve seen it happen in ten.

Everyone has a different threshold for discomfort, fear, and uncertainty. The mental anguish of being left alone will crack most people eventually.

“You don’t need to worry about me,” I say, pulling up a chair in front of him and straddling it backwards. “You need to worry about yourself. I know you ruined the bot-charging stations. I just need you to tell me who helped you.”

“I want a lawyer.”

I huff out a laugh. “Where do you think you are?”

I feel his terror stretch into the silence. He knows he is royally fucked.

Destroying the charging stations really pissed off Mordecai. He’s had to scale down the bot patrols, which threatens his entire system. Farnam knew what he was doing, and Mordecai doesn’t think he acted alone. I’d be willing to bet against an accomplice, but I still have to be sure.

“You aren’t on American soil,” I say. “You’re not even on Earth. This room we’re in doesn’t exist. No one knows you’re here.”

“I’m not s-saying anything.”

I sigh. He’s gonna be tough. I can tell from his voice and demeanor.

“You need to talk,” I say. “We’ll get it out of you one way or another . . . How that happens is up to you.”

I touch my Optix, and the room floods with light — gray walls, white tile, and one battered man slumped on the floor. He has dark hair and brown skin. His face is badly bruised. He put up a fight when we brought him here. I was actually impressed. He’s got a blindfold over his eyes, but I can read his defiance.

I always just wish they would talk, but guys like him never do. It’s gonna be a long night — as much for me as for him. I’d rather be almost anywhere else, but I can’t rest until I get answers.

Reluctantly I open the door, and three humanoids shuffle in. They fill up the space with their cold efficiency. One of them is holding a plastic case. The other two grab Farnam by the arms and pull him to his feet. The man tries to fight them, but resistance is futile. They shove him into a chair.

Farnam looks blindly to his right and his left. He can sense the humanoids on either side. He knows there is nowhere to run, but flight is an animal instinct.

“You’re an engineer,” I say, reaching over and snatching the blindfold off his face.

He squints, and the shadows cast by the strip of lights give his face an even rougher look. His left eye is practically swollen shut, and there’s a long cut spanning across half his face. The skin around it is puffy and bruised. His dark hair is slick with sweat.

“Yes,” he says finally.

“Who do you work for?”

“Logix Systems.”

I already know all this, of course. It’s just to get him talking.

“What do you do there?”

“We specialize in industrial automation . . . I design bots that complete simple tasks on a factory assembly line.”

I nod slowly. “So you’re familiar with how the humanoids work?”

Farnam shakes his head, and I almost believe him. “The humanoids are far more sophisticated than anything we ever —”

“Cut the crap,” I say. “Every one of your co-workers said the same thing. You’re brilliant — overqualified. You only took the job at Logix four years ago. Why? Before that, you were working for RoboWorld — one of BlumBot’s biggest competitors.”

Farnam quickly averts his gaze. He’s done answering my questions. He knows that I’m onto something, and he’s afraid of incriminating someone he knows.

“Am I supposed to believe it’s a coincidence that you took a job with the company nine months before they launched a satellite office on Elderon?”

He doesn’t say a word.

“Kind of interesting, don’t you think? You take a new job, and six months later they tell you that you’re being relocated to space.”

He scowls and attempts to roll his eyes, but his puffy one doesn’t move.

“Either you’re one lucky son of a bitch, or you had inside information from someone high up in Logix — someone who trusted you with confidential information.”

Farnam just stares across the cell. He may be unattached on paper, but I’m betting he’s close to whoever gave him that info.

“It’s Brandt, right? She’s the woman who hired you. You two were classmates at MIT.”

He shakes his head slowly, not looking me in the eyes.

“It had to be Brandt.”

“You can think whatever you want,” he mutters. “But I acted alone.”

I let out a sigh. I’m getting closer to the truth. I can feel it in my gut. But Farnam isn’t folding.

“I’m gonna ask you one more time . . . Who helped you sabotage the charging stations? It had to be someone with access to the restricted zone. That’s a pretty short list of people, and only three of them work for your company.”

I stare at the engineer, whose face is unreadable. It doesn’t help that one of his eyes is practically swollen shut. It makes it more difficult to detect any changes in his expression as I speak.

Shaking my head, I take the case from the third bot and open it in my lap. It’s the sort of case you might store power tools in, except it contains syringes. They are all filled with an amber liquid. I pull one out and hold it up to the light.

“Do you know what this is?” I ask.

Farnam’s one good eye follows the syringe, but his expression doesn’t change.

“It’s a formula designed by the CIA to mimic your own neurotransmitters. When I inject this liquid into your spine, it will set off a chain reaction. The formula tells your brain that you’re experiencing pain, and you won’t be able to stop it.”

I pause. I detect a flicker of fear in his eyes, but not enough to make him talk.

“I’ve been told it feels like your skin is on fire . . . but I can’t say for sure.”

The engineer’s throat bobs. Sweat is beginning to bead up on his brow. I wish he’d just tell me what I need to know, but men like Farnam don’t give up their friends.

“I don’t enjoy this, you know . . . I’d much rather you tell me.”

Farnam mumbles something indiscernible, and I lean forward in my seat.

“What was that?”

His head tilts up. His one good eye is filled with rage, and he’s glaring at me with naked loathing. He lifts his jowls, and I feel a warm smack on my upper lip. Farnam just spit in my face.

I lean back, wiping my mouth. It’s not the first time that’s happened.

“This is your last chance,” I say, pulling the cap off the syringe and letting it fall to the floor.

He continues to scowl and smashes his lips, as if he’s afraid his secrets might escape.

“Fine,” I say, standing up and kicking my chair out of the way. “Get him down.”

On my order, the humanoids seize Farnam by the shoulders and shove his torso down onto his legs. One of them grabs a fistful of hair and forces his head between his knees.

“Brace yourself,” I say, tapping the syringe. “This is going to hurt.”

I step behind Farnam’s chair and see the raised bump of skin where his spine begins. “Anything you want to tell me?”

Farnam doesn’t speak. The back of his neck is glistening with sweat, and he is trembling all over with fear.

I stick the needle between the vertebrae and watch the fluid disappear. The bots release him and he slams back, trembling from head to foot. They bind his arms behind the chair so he doesn’t scratch his own eyes out.

The formula works quickly — the effects are almost instant. His breathing becomes fast and shallow, and his eyes dart from side to side. The moment he feels it, he starts to fight, pulling against his restraints.

Underneath all the blood and bruises, I can see his skin changing from pale to flushed. His breath quickens, and the sweating intensifies. The front of his shirt is quickly soaked.

The pain alone isn’t what causes that. It’s a sign of an accelerating heart rate. Pain causes fear, which morphs into panic. It activates a fight-or-flight response. If I dosed him again, it would intensify. Eventually he’d go into cardiac arrest.

Nobody can fight this much pain. Soon he’ll be desperate to escape.

“Make it stop,” he whispers, his eyes bulging in fear. “Please — don’t — do this.”

“Tell me what I need to know, and this can all be over.”

There is no way to counteract the formula. It just has to run its course.

His bottom lip trembles, and he closes his eyes. His whole body begins to convulse.

“Please!”

“Who — helped you?” I growl.

“I cannot say!”

“Tell me!”

His only answer is a scream. His chair begins to bounce off the floor. He is fighting his restraints with everything he’s got. He nearly upends his chair.

I fish another syringe out of the case, swallowing down my self-loathing. Another injection, and I know he’ll talk. I’ve seen videos of people tearing at their own skin on this stuff.

“I can make you feel better, or I can make this worse. The choice is yours, Farnam.”

“Please,” he whispers, looking up at me with bloodshot eyes. “Make it s-stop.”

“As soon as you tell me what I need to know.”

“I can’t,” he mutters, blood trickling from the place where he bit his own lip. “They’ll k-k-kill me.”

“Who?”

He shakes his head, gasping for air. His body is trying to cool itself down.

“Who’s going to kill you, Farnam?” I bellow.

But he just shakes his head. I get up and walk around behind him, ready to inject him with another dose.

“Last chance,” I say, flicking the syringe.

But he doesn’t say a word.

It’s easier to inject him the second time. I know it will be over soon. His convulsions intensify almost immediately as the formula does its work.

“I’m sorry,” I say, going back to my chair and watching his face.

His breath quickens, his eyes widen, and the veins in his neck bulge. He’s fighting the pain with everything he’s got, but humans are no match for science.

He will crack. They all do. The outcome is inevitable.

“Who helped you destroy the chargers?” I ask. “Farnam . . .”

But Farnam’s body is giving out. He’s seizing in the folding chair. A second later, his eyes roll back. He’s going into cardiac arrest.

“Shit. Get him to the infirmary,” I say to the bots. “And do not leave his side. As soon as he’s stable, I want him back here . . . This isn’t over yet.”

***

What do you think? Has Jonah fully crossed over into the dark side? Tell me about your reactions in the comments below.