one

Jonah

The hole smells like pure despair — a mix of stale sweat, piss, and fear. It’s pitch black inside with the window papered over. He keeps them in the 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. A human operative is assigned to background — tasked with learning everything about the subject. 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. These are not military operatives. They have not been trained to hold up under interrogation. They’re scientists, researchers, and coders. It’s almost exclusively men that we deal with, though we have had a few female vigilantes.

We run into trouble when the subject is a loner — a bachelor with no living family. It’s tough for the average person to cut all their ties; there’s usually someone to leverage. But when I’ve been working all day and I don’t have a name, I know I’m going to be up all night.

This guy has already been in the hole twelve hours. Recon on his loved ones hasn’t turned up anything. 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 know him.

Even on Elderon he’s little more than a name. His colleagues all say the same thing: Farnam was quiet but efficient. They claim to have no idea what he was working on. He received his assignments directly from company headquarters in San Diego. I don’t believe them — not really — but I can’t exactly bring them all in.

Mordecai’s entire system relies on mistrust. He is careful not to create martyrs. And imprisoning an entire department might prompt Farnam’s coworkers to band together to protect him. Maintaining order on Elderon has been my assignment for the past three years, and it’s a tricky dance on a space station filled with the brightest minds in science and technology.

“Who are you?” asks the man, his voice betraying his fear. He does not have any accent at all. He came to America when he was four.

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

Everyone has a different threshold for discomfort, fear — hours alone with their inner demons. Even when we don’t have any leverage, the mental anguish alone will crack almost anyone.

“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 let out a forced chuckle. “Where do you think you are?” I ask.

I feel his terror stretch out in the silence. He knows he is royally fucked. Destroying the charging stations unleashed Mordecai’s ire. He’s had to scale down the bot patrols, which threatens his entire system. Farnam knew what he was doing, and Mordecai seems to think he acted with an accomplice. I’d be willing to bet against it, 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 let out a sigh. He’s going to 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 . . . It can either be hard or easy.”

I touch my Optix, and the room floods with light — white walls, while tile, one battered saboteur slumped in a heap 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 going to 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 room with their quiet efficiency. One of them is holding a small plastic case. The other two grab him by the arms and pull him to his feet. The man screams and bucks and flails, but they just shove him into a chair.

He doesn’t relax when the bots release him. He shakes his head blindly to the right and the left. He can sense the humanoids towering on either side of him. He knows there is nowhere to run.

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

He squints blindly in the light, and the shadows cast by the small light fixture give his features 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 shining with sweat.

“Yes,” he says finally.

“Who do you work for?”

“Logix Systems.”

I already know all of this, of course. The first questions are 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 complicated than anything we ever —”

“Cut the crap,” I say, tapping my Optix. “Every one of your co-workers said the same thing. That you’re brilliant — overqualified for your current position. 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 else.

“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 within six months they tell you that you’re being relocated to space?”

He scoffs 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 Systems . . . Someone who trusted you with confidential info.”

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

“It’s Brandt, right? She’s the woman who hired you.”

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 on this I acted alone.”

I let out a long sigh. I’m getting closer to the truth — I can feel it — 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 small 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.

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 that it’s filled with syringes. I pull one out and hold it up to the light. It’s filled with yellowish liquid. There’s no name on the syringe — just a serial number and a dosage.

“Do you know what this is?” I ask, holding it before him.

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 and stare into his eyes. I detect a flicker of fear. “I’ve been told it feels as though every inch of your skin is on fire . . . but I can’t say for sure.”

The engineer’s throat bobs. Sweat is beginning to dot 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 just tell me.”

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

“What was that?” I ask.

His head tilts up. His one good eye is filled with rage, and he’s glaring at me with naked loathing. His jowls flare up, and I feel a warm smack as he spits in my face.

I lean back, wiping my upper lip. 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 clatter to the floor.

He continues to scowl and smashes his lips together, as if he’s afraid that 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 tug his torso down until his nose kisses his knees. One of them grabs a handful of his hair and forces his head down farther.

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

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

Farnam doesn’t say a word. The back of his neck is slick with sweat, and he is trembling with fear.

I stick the needle between the vertebrae and watch the fluid disappear. The bots release him and he slams back in his chair, 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 instantaneous. 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 whole body starts to sweat. 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 quickly morphs into panic. It activates our fight-or-flight response. If I dosed him again, it would intensify the sensation. But eventually he’d go into cardiac arrest.

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

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

“Just tell me what I need to know, and this will all be over.”

There is no way to counteract the formula. He’ll just have to wait for it 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. I’ve seen video of people tearing at their skin on this stuff. He nearly upends his chair trying to escape, but one of the bots shoves it forward. He rocks briefly on the legs of the chair, and I swallow down my feelings of self-loathing.

I fish another syringe out of the case. Another injection, and I know he’ll talk.

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

“Please,” he hisses, looking up at me with pitiful, pleading, 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 kill me.”

“Who?”

He shakes his head, letting out desperate gasps of air. It’s his body trying to cool him down.

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

But he just shakes his head. I get up and go around behind him, ready to inject him again.

“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 eyes roll back in his head.

His breathing has become extremely rapid, and the veins in his neck are bulging. He’s fighting with everything he’s got, but humans are no match for this technology. He will crack, and we’ll get his accomplice. 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 metal folding chair, flopping like a fish out of water. His eyes are rolling back into his head, bulging out of their sockets. I pushed him too hard with the second dose.

“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.”

***

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

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