The butt of a baton clacked against the door. "Twenty-two hundred! Lights out!"
Mitchell turned the light off and reclined on his bunk, listening to the kapo's footsteps dwindle as he continued his round along the block.
Moonlight sieved through the grated mesh of the window and spangled the room like a disco ball. Mitchell probed under his mattress and withdrew a five by seven photograph. It was a close-shot of a woman, stretched across a bed in a pose reminiscent of some sort of exotic feline. She was presumably nude, a thin sheet draped across her body to preserve her chastity. Mitchell traced a fingertip along her contours.
"What did I call her?" he whispered.
"You know what you called her," responded a voice from the top bunk. It was rich and smooth, like auditory caramel.
"Tell me anyway."
"Ingénue. You called her ingénue."
"Ingénue," Mitchell repeated, tasting the word in his mouth. "Where the hell did I come up with that?"
"I'm sure I don't know."
Mitchell laid his head back on the pillow, balancing the photograph on his chest. She had large eyes, irises so dark they faded into the pupils. "Tell me a story about her," he said.
The voice laughed from above. "Which one? You know them all."
"I don't care. You choose."
"Let's see… What haven't we heard in a while?" There was a long pause of deliberation, and then: "You met on guard duty. Containment cell E-3024. She was new; terrified. You could hear her shaking in her oversized gear. So you spoke to her, tried to placate her concerns, to assuage her fears. You were never good at that sort of thing, and at the Foundation you always kept your distance from new recruits, but talking to her just came natural. You introduced yourself and steered the conversation away from whatever was lurking behind that door. And for whatever reason you found yourself talking about your past, about the good parts, back when you were living in Boston. Time spent at Fenway, not caring that your team lost because on that day you were in the company of friends, with a cold beer in your hand and money in your pocket, and that was worth more than any baseball game. You told her about the time you went to the Omni Theater and got motion sickness after eating too much astronaut ice cream from the gift shop…"
Mitchell closed his eyes and recalled the events as the tale unfolded. The way it was phrased wasn't like a friend sharing an amusing anecdote, improvising the words as they went along. It was instead as if they were being read aloud from a book, carefully ruminated and crafted. Which of course they were, in a way — Mitchell had probably heard this particular story a dozen times. He imagined Boston, from the muddy current of the Charles to the stone-paved streets of the Freedom Trail. He glanced upward at Faneuil Hall and its discordant weather-vane; he watched as the wealthy exited their brownstones in Back Bay to waste money on Newbury Street and at Saks Fifth Avenue; cold air shocked his sinuses while the college students, bundled in black Northface jackets and even blacker tights, departed home for the winter semester break.
"… At the end of your shift, she thanked you for being sweet and kind. You'd been so absorbed in the conversation, it wasn't until she removed her helmet that you realized you hadn't even seen her face. It was in that instant — one of those endangered, perfect instances that seem to freeze time but are never quite long enough — that you knew everything had changed…"
Despite the colorful narration this was harder to imagine. It was as if Mitchell had no reference or context to frame the images. He peeked at the photograph for visual aid and screwed his eyes back shut. The tableau stabilized, the woman's features sharpened into focus: a lopsided grin partially-obscured by a helmeted mask. The mask sat too low on her face and she was constantly angling her chin upward to see beneath the brim.
And then her face was lost again, sinking into the black watery depths of his memory.
"Will she ever come back?" he asked. "The memories, I mean."
"Probably not," came the answer above, not unkindly.
Mitchell ran the ball of his thumb along the underside of his ring finger, just before it met the palm. He craved his wedding ring, could still feel its squeeze, burning and itching like a phantom limb.
"You still mean to go through with it, then?"
"Yes," replied Mitchell.
"Soon as I get my chance."
Reveille was at 0530 for the D-Class assigned to first shift. Mitchell yawned and climbed out of bed. Instead of a military bugle, Reveille here was an electronic tune piped through the intercom system. When it finished the lock buzzed and he swung the door open.
If he missed the buzzer's thirty second window the door would automatically lock again, and stay that way for the next four hours, or until a prisoner functionary came to check on him.
He exited the room and lined his feet along the yellow band that circled the block. Out of habit, Mitchell softly hummed To the Colors. After roll call he wandered into the locker room. The showers weren't communal; instead they were small tiled alcoves replete with curtain.
Ten minutes later, wearing fresh blue coveralls, Mitchell filed into the mess hall.
One thing he had to give the Foundation: the food was actually pretty damn good. A lot better than the Army, or any prison Mitchell had been invited to attend. The eggs weren't artificial and were cooked to order. Likewise the bread was fresh and came with real butter and jam. Today he was indulging in an omelet with sides of hashbrowns and bacon, along with a bagel, heavy on the cream cheese. It came with as much juice and coffee he could drink in the next fifteen minutes.
He supposed it was a morale thing. Same with the showers. It was the small amenities that made life bearable. It always helped to have a good meal in you before marching off to guard the gates of hell.
Mitchell spent the next ten hours hunched over a terminal in a tiered, darkened room that resembled NASA's mission control. He watched a bank of CCTV monitors recording a half-flooded basement. Figures, vaguely human in their design, glided under the waves; occasionally auroras blossomed beneath the surface as bioluminescent spines and tentacles flared. Barnacles spackled the cellar steps like psoriasis, and weeds climbed the cinderblock walls and support beams.
A grid in the corner of one screen took atmospheric measurements of the basement: currently it read 1042 bars of pressure and a temperature of 5 degrees Celsius.
It was monotonous, stressful work. The potential for failure was death, and the Foundation made certain Mitchell never forgot it. He suspected they were salting his water with — among other things — some form of methamphetamine to maintain focus and performance standards. By the end of the shift his eyes would feel like sandpaper, and some mornings his jaw ached from grinding his teeth.
At 1600 Mitchell clocked out.
He made a short detour to the commissary for a snack before heading to the courtyard. For whatever reason he had a large account balance at the commissary, and so he also paid for the other D-Class standing in line behind him.
A broad expanse equal in area to four football fields, on one side the courtyard was enclosed by a thirty-foot wall topped with razor-wire and motion sensors, and on the remaining sides by the Foundation compound and two of its containment wings. There was an Olympic-sized swimming pool (drained for the season), an outdoor gym, a basketball court and a baseball diamond. A clay track ran along the inside of the perimeter.
Mitchell completed six laps around the track, which roughly totaled two miles. Blood pumping, he moved on to the gym and used the free weights for sets of curls and presses. He wanted to burn off any excess energy leftover from the laced stimulant. By the time his second game of pick-up basketball was ending the Mess Call broadcasted and all the D-Class queued for supper in the cafeteria.
"Tell me a story about her," Mitchell said as he sat on the edge of his bunk. The room was ink-black. It had rained earlier, and the lingering clouds smothered any moonlight.
"Which one?" came the ritual response from above.
"Let's see… Ah, I've got it. I actually officiated your wedding. Read from a bible and everything. Both the ceremony and the reception were held in the break room on the second floor, in the Safe Reliquary section. You know the place? Anyway, you exchanged rings…"
In the darkness, Mitchell practiced making knots behind his back, tying a ribbon of silk around a wooden dowel he'd fleeced from the textile workshop. He counted off how long it took to make each knot, and tested its strength and how long it took to unravel. Then he switched hands and repeated the process.
"…she loved Carly Simon, and we played some of her songs off the break room computer. You even let me dance with the bride when Nobody Does it Better came on. God, she was beautiful. All dolled up — not that she needed it — hair done and wearing lipstick. There was champagne, courtesy of the same dealer who got you the rings, and cake scrounged from the kitchen. I'd brought along some sheets and blankets from the supply closet, and around midnight I left, locked you two inside for some alone time. I was working nights as a janitor back then, so I had the keys…"
Mitchell flushed with anger reminiscing on what he'd lost. No, correction: not lost, stolen. It wasn't like he misplaced the fucking thing. He was rendered impotent in the shadow of the Foundation's thoroughness, their complete and exacting control — not only had they separated him from his wife physically, but they'd scrubbed his brain clean of her memory. It was, at least from Mitchell's perspective, as if they'd never even met.
Did something still exist, had it ever really existed, if it was no longer remembered?
His ears and face grew hot, the tidal pulse of his heart surged, and his fingers slipped on the next knot. He tossed the ribbon and dowel aside.
"You remembering any of this?"
"Just fragments," sighed Mitchell. He was reduced to experiencing his own past through other people's accounts.
"Does it help? Me telling stories."
"You know it does." Mitchell lay back and closed his eyes; he concentrated on breathing and tried to calm his heartbeat. It was true, the stories were like keys unlocking his past, but progress was frustratingly slow, and even after all these months all he had were nascent snapshots. The collective sum was disjointed and inchoate. If his marriage was a movie, for every frame of film there were a hundred more that were missing, and the third reel had been completely destroyed in a celluloid fire.
"Was there anybody else at the wedding?" he asked.
"Besides you, I mean. Was there anybody else? Other guests…"
The voice floated down from the top bunk. "No." Then, as if sensing further explanation was required: "It was hard enough just sneaking the two of you in."
"Yeah, I get it. But other people knew about us, right?"
"To be honest, I don't really know. I didn't tell anybody, and I know you just told me and Jordan, but he was grabbed around the same time as you, 'cept he never came back. I assume she must've told somebody over in the female block, her cellmate, a friend, someone, but I don't know who that might have been. None of the women ever tried to contact you?"
Mitchell shook his head. "No one's approached me." He had hoped someone else might know something. That he might hear something new, or even something old but from a different point of view, and that would be the missing keystone to bring it all together.
As they drifted off to sleep they completed the final exchange of the nocturnal ceremony.
"You still mean to go through with it, then?"
"Yes," replied Mitchell.
"Soon as I get my chance."
Life at the facility consisted of a never-ending series of protocols and procedures. It was ossified to the point that even Mitchell's routines had subroutines. His entire existence was like a cruel matryoshka nesting doll of boredom set inside tediousness.
There was an odd dichotomy within the Foundation — their mission statement was the procurement and subsequent containment of anomalous objects and organisms, but in order to complete this objective they were forced to recruit expendable D-Class personnel from the world's prison population, commuting the sentences of inmates who were eligible and acceptant of the assignment.
This in turn necessitated the Foundation to function as an auxiliary penitentiary, without the societal goals of punishment, justice, or rehabilitation. It did offer and encourage extracurricular activities for the D-Class, from higher-education courses mainly taught by members of the Research staff, to sewing clubs and AA meetings. But Mitchell suspected this was all a smokescreen to appease and mollify the convicts, much like the upgraded food and showers. It was the illusion of a future outside of these walls that kept them docile. Freedom — or the possibility of freedom — was dangled in front of them like a carrot in front of a draft-mule. Several times a year the site would make a show of a D-Class that had been pardoned, but it was always after the fact, when they were supposedly far-away, living under a new identity with a comfortable pension. They'd parade postcards and a farewell letter addressed to no one in particular, and the director would mutter an announcement regarding their bravery and dedication.
It was all bullshit, all opiates for the masses. Mitchell saw through it. The retired D-Class was actually rotting in a pauper's grave or slowly being digested in the belly of a cosmic squid. It probably wasn't even the site director talking over the intercom.
0600: First shift starts.
As the custodial care of convicts was a byproduct of the Foundation's goals, there was a fundamental paradigm shift in discipline in comparison to most penitentiaries. There was an average of only one correctional officer per two hundred inmates (and most sites didn't even house two hundred D-Class personnel). Their limited capacity was supplemented by prisoner functionaries, or "kapos", D-Class that acted on the authority of COs in exchange for various perks and benefits.
Felons were selected based on multiple variables, including notoriety, behavioral tests, and criminal history. A high-profile case would be ignored. Likewise an unrepentant, schizophrenic child-murderer wouldn't be considered an eligible candidate for the program. Most D-Class were from the U.S., as it had the largest prison population, housing approximately twenty-two percent of the world's convicts, and a majority were non-violent offenders from states with minimum sentencing laws drafted during the Reagan era, a misguided response to the crack cocaine epidemic. In second place was China — they executed approximately twenty-five hundred citizens each year.
As a D-Class within the Foundation, minor offenses, such as consensual inner-class relationships or possession of tobacco, were often overlooked. At worst an infraction was accrued. A total of three infractions within a six month period resulted in the loss of privileges, from access to the yard and commissary to block detention outside of scheduled shifts. It was also common to tack on additional custodial details, like garbage removal and scrubbing lavatories.
The quality of life and (relative) freedom of the D-Class was a double-edged blade.
Although officially the Foundation denied punitive Keter-assignment and testing, reality spoke differently. D-Class charged with serious offenses such as rape or assault against staff, including other D-Class, were quickly removed from circulation and rarely seen again. For this simple reason the D-Class operated with very little oversight. There was the inevitable black market which supplied anything from a pack of dice to pornography (or champagne and wedding rings), but that was the extent of the illicit activity. If a D-Class was ever caught with a shiv during a surprise block search, or found guilty of insubordination in a containment scenario, they weren't sent for an all-expenses paid trip to solitary confinement. There was no second chance, no new trial, no meeting with a lawyer or appeal to the governor for clemency.
It was an incredibly effective motivator.
There were rumors of other sites where the D-Class were unceremoniously executed at the end of each month. Also that they were all surgically implanted with a micro-explosive that could be activated remotely, or even automatically if they crossed certain invisible barriers. They were the sort of lies the Foundation covertly encouraged, and just plausible enough to sow doubt.
Another popular story was of the D-Class at Site-15 rioting. Depending on who was telling the story they were either a ragtag team of organized rebels or a bunch of idiots too stupid to know when to fold. No matter who you heard it from it always ended the same way: lockdown and MTF intervention, with every D-Class participant earning themselves a copper medal, right behind the ear.
Roughly a quarter of the staff at Mitchell's site were ex-military. The Mobile Task Forces consisted of combat veterans culled from elite SMUs like Delta, SAS, and Mossad. They were usually on active duty deployed across the world, but the MTF Eta-Seven "Creepy Crawlies" team was headquartered at Mitchell's site, and could occasionally be glimpsed prowling Euclid corridors and subbasements, or conducting training exercises beyond the yard. Although their interactions with D-Class were limited, there was a grudging respect between the two disparate groups, as they were often assigned the most dangerous tasks.
Other military personnel filled a plethora of roles within the Foundation, anything from guards and agents to strategists and intelligence desk-jobs.
1600: End of shift. Exercise and train.
The Foundation functioned on the principle that any insurrection would end in death. Even simple defiance could result in termination. Whether it was by a gun or some stygian crustacean was their choice. The opposite side of the coin was the necessary fairytale they sold and everyone swallowed: if you followed the rules and played the game there was a slim chance you could make it out of this alive.
Mitchell wasn't buying it anymore. He had no illusion that he was going to spend his golden years on a tropical beach somewhere, feet planted in the sand and a fruity rum-drink at his elbow.
2200: Lights out.
"You still mean to go through with it?"
Mitchell was again practicing tying knots around the dowel. "Yes," he replied.
"Soon as I get my chance."
"Anything I can do to help?"
"No," Mitchell said. "You've already done too much. When it's all over, they're going to come at you hard, interrogate you with everything they've got. It's better — safer — the less you know."
On a Tuesday in April, Mitchell got his chance.
Staff often assigned minor tasks to D-Class at random, either because they were too busy or too lazy to do it themselves. Mitchell had gotten into the habit of volunteering for any inter-office errand, usually delivering parcels and messages between departments that couldn't be sent electronically. Nowadays they didn't even ask, just told him to 'go there' and 'carry this'.
"Bring this to Mr. Truman in Resources," Dr. Dias said as she scribbled out a form. "You know the guy, up in Human Resources?"
Mitchell visited the Resources department once or twice a week, was on a first name basis with the guards. "Yes ma'am."
"Witness and sign, bring me back the pink copy. You know the drill. He can keep the thing if he wants, but bring it back to me if he doesn't." Dr. Dias hurriedly passed him a metal box the size of a restaurant take-out container along with the form.
On his way to Resources Mitchell made a pit stop to a restroom. By now his hands were clammy and his stomach was doing somersaults. His endocrine glands were dumping all their adrenal reserves. This was actually happening. His face was febrile to the touch. He'd been planning for this moment for months, and now that it'd finally arrived he felt totally unprepared. Was he really going through with this?
He saw her then, his ingénue. She was sprawled across the mattress as in the photograph, skin poured cream, hair spilling around her shoulders in amber drifts. A ray of sunlight shone through a nearby window. It dappled her thighs and highlighted the soft down on the nape of her neck and arms. If he ran his fingertips teasingly through that down, would she shiver and break out in goosebumps? He believed she would.
Yes, for her he'd follow this through to the end.
He removed the garbage bag out of the bathroom trash. Underneath, in the bottom of the canister, were two wooden dowels. He'd stashed many of them across the facility, not knowing when and where he'd need them. The trash was removed by D-Class, and usually they just swapped the bags out, never bothering to clean whatever may have fallen outside of it.
Mitchell stuck the two dowels inside the elastic waistband of his pants, at the small of his back, and then returned the bag.
He ran a cold water tap, cupped his palms beneath the faucet, and splashed water on his face. He couldn't recall ever seeing this done outside of movies, but had to admit it felt pretty good, and so did it several more times, dabbing at his ears and the back of his neck. In the laminated mirror his reflection looked feral; dripping wet, flushed with a cocktail of neurotransmitters, the bangs jutting straight up like a cartoon. He leaned his head into the sink and drank from the faucet, a long draught, and used paper towels to clean himself and straighten his hair. After half a roll he almost looked presentable and felt much better. Calm. He told himself that in less than an hour he'd never have to worry about anything again. He could finally go to sleep and dream with his wife.
The facility was compartmentalized for safety purposes, and entering different sections required passing through security checkpoints as tight as an airport. Most guards — and they were actual guards at these checkpoints, ex-military, not D-Class kapos — recognized Mitchell from his frequent errands and simply waved him through. As a precaution he still had to remove his shoes and pass through a body scanner that utilized backscatter x-rays.
He set the metal container on the conveyor belt and raised his hands above his head as he stepped inside the body scanner. The D-Class uniform was similar to other prisons: loose-fitting blue scrubs with no pockets. It was difficult to hide anything inside it, and besides that Mitchell wasn't certain whether wood showed up on the x-ray machine or not. If it did register and flag the dowels the guard would follow-up with a pat-down that would reveal the contraband, if not their actual purpose.
It was a risk he had to take.
Mitchell recognized the guard on duty as Brian Clark. He wasn't the most stringent of guards, but he was professional, and if alerted to any irregularity Mitchell had no doubt he'd pursue it.
A bead of sweat rolled down his temple. The scanner only took around fifteen seconds to complete, but today it felt much longer. He studied the guard at the machine's console. What do you see on that screen? wondered Mitchell. Is it sharp and defined? I hope not. I hope it's about as defined as my past.
The guard looked up and motioned him through. "What you got for us today, Mitch?"
"Package for Mr. Truman, sir," he said, and handed over the papers and box. He swiped his ID badge to electronically check-in while the guard reviewed the forms.
"His eyes only, huh? With you as a witness."
"Yes sir," Mitchell confirmed.
The guard smiled and mockingly whistled at the package's overly-sensitive classification. Mitchell surprised himself by manufacturing a smile of his own while the guard picked up the station phone and thumbed an extension. After a brief conversation Mr. Truman appeared at the checkpoint. He was a nondescript forty-something in slacks, wore a tie but no coat. He'd barely glanced at the form before ushering Mitchell down a short corridor and into his office.
"Close the door behind you," Mr. Truman ordered.
Mitchel read the nameplate on the door: STEPHEN J. TRUMAN, VP RESOURCE AND ASSET ACQUISITION.
The office occupied a corner on the fourth floor of the main facility. There were two windows that looked out onto the yard and the site grounds beyond. Mitchell noticed that even here the windows were barred.
D-Class were frequently utilized to circumvent the daily minutiae of paperwork and clearances. As they were incarcerated within the facility with no means of outside communication, they filled a unique niche as simultaneously being the lowest ranked staff members while possessing some of the highest security clearances. There was no fear they'd have one-too-many at the local watering hole and confide to the bartender, no risk of venting to the wife about how a skip had possessed their boss the last two weeks, but now it had been exorcised and the old boss was back, and dammit if the skip wasn't better to work for. The only people a D-Class could talk to were other Foundation employees, and so in their limited, confined capacity as prisoners, it was a general rule that confidential information couldn't be leaked, at least not beyond the facility.
It was for this reason that Mitchell found himself, on a Tuesday in April, standing alone with Truman in his office. Mr. Truman, the departmental head of Resource and Asset Acquisition. Mr. Truman, the man who'd stumbled upon Mitchell's marriage by chance and didn't hesitate to report it, setting in motion his wife's transfer — if she was even still alive — and Mitchell's subsequent erasure of memories.
Mitchell closed the door.
Truman turned his back and set the steel cube on his desk. "Dias tell you what this is all about?"
"No sir." The ribbon was tied loosely along his bicep, concealed under his shirtsleeve. He unraveled it, plucked the dowels from his waistband, and behind his back he knotted the ribbon at each end around the dowels.
"Well, let's take a look at what she's cooked up this—"
Mitchell swung the makeshift garrote up and over Truman's head. He cinched it taut around his throat and pulled him backward, away from the desk and into the middle of the room where there was nothing to grab. His legs scissored while he clawed at his neck and his breath escaped in a kettle wheeze. Mitchell planted his knee in his spine and forced him prostrate to the floor. Truman thrashed and wriggled but couldn't break loose. Mitchell's fingers turned purple from a lack of circulation as he squeezed as tight as he could. The ribbon was made from parachute silk he'd taken from the textile workshop.
It would hold. He was more concerned about the dowels snapping.
The strength quickly ebbed from Truman. He made a wet keening sound in the back of his throat, still frantically trying to get his fingers under the ribbon, and then went slack. Mitchell continued to apply the garrote, counting to ten before releasing him.
Each staff member, including D-Class, was required to wear an alert bracelet at all times. It was worn on the wrist like a watch, and it monitored pulse rates and GPS coordinates, among other features. It could also be manually engaged. Mitchell glanced at the face of Truman's. The readings appeared normal; no alert had been issued.
Mitchell worked fast. He slammed home the deadbolt on the office door and activated the level handle lock. Then he raised the police-locking bar, wedging it at a forty-five degree angle between its floor mount and the notch. The door was old, installed when the site was originally built, made of thick steel. There were circular plates spaced evenly across its surface, but he wasn't sure what they were for; maybe ablative shielding or armor reinforcement.
The office had been designed as a fortified emergency shelter — there was at least one in each department, a place for employees to fallback in case of containment breach, offering more protection than a standard room.
He picked Truman up and sat him limp in his office chair, using the phone cords from his Avaya set to lash his wrists to the armrests, cinch his feet together, and as a final precaution, secure his chest to the back of the chair, threading the wire under his armpits. As he completed the last knot Truman stirred, his chest hitching with a sudden gasp. He'd been out less than a minute. Mitchell repositioned himself behind the chair.
Truman's eyelids fluttered open. His diaphragm expanded as he gulped air. Mitchell tightened the garrote around his neck but allowed enough slack for respiration.
When Truman fully came-to Mitchell leaned over and whispered into his ear: "Do exactly as I say and you might get out of this alive." It was a lie, of course, but like the prospect of freedom for the D-Class, he thought it'd persuade Truman into doing what he wanted. He rolled the chair on its casters to a large safe tucked into the corner of the office, next to a potted ficus plant. "Unlock it. Don't open it. If you open it, I'll choke you to death."
Truman croaked, "What the hell is—"
The garrote constricted, cutting off the words.
"Don't talk. Just open the safe."
He moved the chair so that Truman was able to extend his fingers and punch in the keycode. There was a beep and an indicator light turned from red to green. Mitchell wheeled Truman out of the way and opened the safe.
Inside was a cache of containment breach emergency supplies. It came standard with the emergency fallback offices. There was an M4A1 carbine and three thirty-round magazines. He loaded a clip and placed the assault rifle on the desk's blotter. There was also a 9mm Glock, a truncated shock-stick, a gasmask, an assortment of pills and tablets and capsules, a three-ring binder with procedural manuals, a radio, and a first-aid kit. Mitchell selected the Glock and used the binder to keep the safe propped open, in case he needed quick access later.
He towed Truman's chair around the desk to the opposite side, then pulled one of the chairs reserved for visitors next to him and sat down, so that they sat across from each other. The pistol remained in Mitchell's hand.
Truman struggled to speak. A blood vessel had erupted in his right eye. There were scratches and crescent-shaped gouges on his neck where his fingernails had scrabbled and peeled the flesh away trying to get at the garrote. The garrote itself had left very little evidence behind — a pink band that might bruise.
Truman broke into a coughing fit. When it failed to subside Mitchell grabbed a half-empty water bottle from the desk and held it to Truman's lips while he drank. When he was finished Mitchell sat back down. He reached into his trousers and pulled the photograph from his underwear, reverently unfolding it and holding it up for Truman to see.
"Say her name," he ordered, and fumbled with the pistol's safety catch before realizing that there wasn't one.
Truman squinted. His breathing was shallow and labored.
"Say her name," repeated Mitchell.
"I don't know her name," whined Truman.
"I don't know!"
Mitchell snarled and lunged out of the chair, cramming the picture into Truman's face, the barrel of the gun pressed snugly behind it. "Don't lie to me. You know her name. Say it. Say it or I swear I'll feed you every last goddamn bullet in this thing."
"I don't know."
"You know. Say it!"
"Marilyn! Her name is Marilyn!" Mitchell sank back into the chair.
Truman eyed him like he was a wild animal. "Whatever you think I did, I didn't do it. I've no clue what you're talking about."
Mitchell had known going into this that Truman would lie, try to weasel his way out, deflect responsibility as much as possible. He'd preemptively steeled himself against tactics that would appeal to his empathy and skepticism.
"Less than two months after we met we were married. Nothing official, of course. D-Class don't exist in the eyes of the law. Still, it meant something to us. It belonged to us alone, not the Foundation, not the skips or the screws, no one else." Mitchell raised his eyes to meet Truman's. "But, you know what? We were wrong." He barked a joyless laugh. "We were wrong. It never belonged to us. You can't own anything in this place. 'Cause you found out, you and your rules and regulations, and you took her away. Had my brain wiped, bleached it like she never even existed."
"That didn't happen," Truman said.
"It's too late for excuses."
"Listen, your memories were erased, that's true. But it was for Keter assignment. You volunteered."
"Yeah, that's what the shrink told me too." He stuck the pistol into his waistband and stood up, the dowels of the garrote gripped in both hands.
"There was never a Marilyn!" rasped Truman. "We can't wipe an entire year's worth of memories. Not at once!"
Mitchell swiveled the chair around, so that he stood above and behind Truman, both of them staring out the office window at a gray, dusky sky underscored by the serrated tops of pine trees.
"Please…" he begged. "Please… I never did anything. You weren't married. I can prove it to you."
Mitchell looped the garrote around his throat. "I'm sure you can."
"Wait! Wait! It's documented. Forms you signed. Video recordings of the agreement. Interviews conducted. I don't know specific details about the skip, something memetic I guess. I'm on a need to know basis; they just tell what they're looking for and I make the recommendation. You think we'd create a whole cover story for a D-Class?"
"You do it all the time."
"For a D-Class that we — according to you — betrayed? Why risk it? We'd just feed you to the crocodile before going through all this trouble."
That creeping doubt, a slow burn, gnawing at his resolve. It all sounded so damn reasonable. "Show me then."
"I don't have it with me." The garrote tightened. "Wait!" he gasped, straining against the phone cords. "I can get it…"
"How?" asked Mitchell.
Truman supplied his credentials for Mitchell to log in and then navigated him through the different drives and folders. After several dead ends he started to suspect Truman was stalling for time. This was taking too long, and though he recoiled at the possibility of murdering an innocent man, Mitchell couldn't ignore that he was being sidetracked from what he came here to accomplish. Perhaps sensing his impatience, Truman instructed him to enter his employee identification number in the search field of a particular folder called VOL KET RECS. A long list of files pulled up.
"Okay, here we go. Roll me over so I can read them." Truman's eyes flicked left to right. "Here, click on this one."
Screenshots of a signed agreement form, over twenty pages in length, with Mitchell's dated signature and initials peppered throughout. Mitchell frowned as he clicked through. "This proves nothing. You could've forged this, could've told me anything to get me to sign without reading."
Truman shook his head. "You can't erase an entire year's worth of a person's memory. I'm no doctor, but even I know the amnestics don't work like that. I mean — you can, technically, but the person usually ends up comatose or with brain damage. The most we like to do is a month at a time, and even that can have severe side effects. And you don't strike me as the kind of guy that signs a contract without reading it."
"I'm missing a year." Mitchell closed out of the file and opened the one listed below it. It looked like a behavioral health treatment plan.
"I know that, that's what I'm trying to explain. So, what typically happens is you're on a five shift rotation. You're on duty for four weeks, then the next week is spent getting amnestitized and re-trained for the containment procedures. Get it? Always four groups of D-Class on, and always one going through orientation. And it rotates—"
"Yeah, I got it."
"That way you don't run as much of a chance waking up drooling and wearing diapers. The amnestics are cumulative, though. It's still dangerous. Sometimes, halfway through we get a subject that can't even remember his own name. It happens. We compensate it with weekly psychological tests to monitor your condition… and the pay, of course."
"What pay?" Adherence records, a log of his punches. He closed out and opened another. His criminal history. Dishonorably discharged. DUI charges. Busted on I-45 outside of Houston with fifty pounds of Mexican dope in his trunk. He closed out and opened another.
"Usually it's ten years off your sentence and a deposit to the commissary. I don't know the exact number, but I think it's a couple grand."
Mitchell looked up from the computer. He had a large balance on his commissary that he couldn't account for. "There're no videos here," he said.
Truman winced. "They must not be on the shared drive. They take up a lot of space. But I can get them. Please. Let me help you. You should've told the psychiatrist you were having these memories, it's called confabulation. It can be common in amnesiacs, one of the reasons we continue to monitor them."
"And rat myself out to the Foundation?" scoffed Mitchell. "Show them that the amnestics didn't work."
"They're not real memories. Maybe if you'd shared them in the sessions we could've helped you realize this, helped you work through all this. You weren't even stationed at this site prior to the Keter assignment. Come on, you know it makes more sense than the story you've cooked up. If you got caught in a relationship — and it happens often — you probably would've gotten written up, separated. Yeah, maybe you'd never see her again. But we would not have scrapped a year of memories. We wouldn't have forged false documents. That's a waste of resources, and I've got better things to do than mess with D-Class."
Mitchell gazed at the crinkled picture. His ingénue was beautiful, if not in a contemporary sense, then certainly in a classical style that would never fall out of fashion. She wasn't fat, but she wasn't supermodel-emaciated, either. She had curves in all the places a woman should. Voluptuous would've been the word he'd use to describe her.
"I'm sorry," Truman said, watching him closely. "She's not real. She never was."
Mitchell closed his eyes and tried to remember: he heard her laugh, mischievous and sensual. He inhaled her; consumed her. She smelled like fresh-picked flowers and cantaloupe. He savored the taste of her sweet lips pressed against his, open-mouthed, the exchange of breath. Of essence. He ran the tips of his fingers, delicate as a feather, along the soft hair on her spine, tracing it slowly downward… she broke out in ridges of gooseflesh and involuntarily shivered, her toes curled, and meanwhile he continued his journey down her back, further, downward… until she couldn't withstand the tease any longer and was devoured by passion.
"I can help you. We'll figure this out."
Mitchell snapped out of his woolgathering. She was real. Her name was Marilyn. Ingénue to him alone. She was his wife. The bastard was trying to trick him. It wasn't enough to erase her, now he was playing with his mind, like it was all a sick game.
"This was always a one-way ticket for me," he said remorsefully.
"No one knows what's happened here today except for you and me, and you haven't done anything that can't be fixed," soothed Truman. Mitchell stared at him blankly. "I'll get those videos for you, and together we'll solve this thing. I promise. On my children's lives."
Mitchell's breath caught in his throat. He'd never killed anyone before, and he'd like to never have to start, but the idea of Marilyn being nothing more than a figment of his imagination was more terrifying than the alternative.
There was a knock at the door.
Both men froze.
"Mr. Truman? Everything all right in there? Downstairs rang and said you opened the safe. They've been trying to call you but there's something wrong with your phone." It was Brian, the guard from the checkpoint.
"He's got my fucking gun!" screamed Truman. Mitchell flinched at the sudden volume of his voice.
Apparently Brian was also caught off guard. "Who?" he asked.
"The fucking D-Class you—"
Mitchell swung the Glock, the barrel connecting with Truman's mouth at the end of its arc, splitting his bottom lip and knocking out two teeth. But he was too late. The entire facility would be pounding at the office door in a matter of minutes. He heard radio chatter outside while Brian called it in, but couldn't make out the actual words being said.
"You lying piece of shit."
"Wait! Please! I wasn't lying," spat Truman, his mouth full of blood.
"You fucked up then."
Mitchell spun him around in the chair until he was in position and wrapped the garrote around his neck. He pulled back and down, putting his weight into it. The ropey muscles in his forearms clenched.
A bullet struck the corner of the desk, showering Mitchell in sawdust and splinters. It was another moment before he registered the gun's report. A second bullet flew by his face, so close it ruffled his hair. It hit the window and spider-webbed the glass. He dropped to the floor, pulling Truman down with him. The third bullet tore through the space he'd previously occupied.
He crawled on his elbows and peeked around the desk. The door was still secure; no one had busted it down. He briefly entertained the idea that someone was shooting through the window, but they were too high for a guard to make a clear shot from the yard.
Then he saw it. There were loopholes in the door, small portholes that opened up, allowing someone to fire out or in with relative cover behind the thick steel. That's what those circular plates had been. Now one of the slits was open, and he could see Brian scanning the room, the snout of his service pistol perched on the lip of the hole.
Mitchell took aim and squeezed off two rounds. They both went wide, the bullets pinging against the steel, but close enough to give Brian a jump and make him back off.
He turned his attention back to Truman. Reinforcements would be here soon, and who knew what toys they'd bring along to try and stop him.
Truman had somehow managed to twist out of the restraints for his chest and left arm. Partially free, he was clawing his way up the desk. Mitchell followed his course and saw he was headed straight for the carbine. Things had quickly unraveled. Mitchell had never had any intention of surviving, and yet he hadn't planned for this escalation of violence, either. It was all supposed to have been quick and quiet.
He shot Truman.
Then he shot him again.
Truman yelped and crashed to the floor, still half-trussed to the chair. He'd aimed low, placing one round in his thigh, the other in his hip.
He emptied the rest of the clip at the door and then snatched the carbine off the desk, tossing the pistol aside. The acrid tang of cordite filled the room, and Mitchell's ears rang. Through the roar he could hear Truman moaning faintly as he rocked side-to-side. There was a small pool of blood — no larger than a teacup saucer — forming under his legs, slowly spreading through the carpet fibers.
He heard shouting, but couldn't parse the words or its source. An alarm sounded somewhere. The face of his and Truman's alert bracelets lit up with a notification of site-lockdown. As the ringing in Mitchell's ears subsided the shouting became intelligible:
"… D-3009! Steve Truman! Please respond!"
Mitchell hazarded a glance around the desk. Multiple loopholes in the door were now open, each nesting the barrel of an assault rifle.
"D-3009 respond! Mr. Truman!"
"Yeah? What do you want?" called Mitchell. "What happened to the other guy? Brian."
Soft chatter behind the door, and then the same voice hollering: "Speaker! Please identify yourself."
"This is D-3009."
"Is Mr. Truman with you?"
"Why doesn't he respond? Is he alive?"
Mitchell looked Truman over. His eyes were glassy and he writhed with pain. The pool of blood had expanded. Mitchell wasn't sure if he was aware of what was happening or not. What was clear was that the desk they were hiding behind wasn't bulletproof, and the only reason why it hadn't already been riddled with gunfire was in fear of hitting Truman.
He supposed the story about micro-bomb implants was false, otherwise he'd be vaporized by now.
"Yeah, he's alive. Just… incapacitated."
"Look, I'm done talking. Okay?"
"Mitchell, my name's Paul." The switch from his Foundation designation to his real name didn't escape his notice. "I'm a Captain with site security. I'm going to need either visual or verbal confirmation that Truman's alive."
"Okay, you've got my verbal confirmation."
"Umm — I need it to come from him."
Mitchell didn't know why he bothered conversing. Maybe it was just that this was the end of the line, and he was procrastinating. They couldn't kick the door in, not with the rod in place, and the loopholes were too small to reach through. They could probably rip it off or cut it down, though. Or maybe they'd come through the floor or ceiling; repel from the roof and crash through the window.
"Mitchell, this is Paul again. Listen, we don't want anyone to get hurt. Why don't you come over here and unlock this door so we can talk about this. I promise you no one will lay a finger on you."
"What the hell was that?" Mitchell laughed. "Was that you negotiating?"
"Mitchell, in just a few minutes the MTF is going to be up here with drills and torches. They're going to cut this door from its hinges, and when they do that, it's going to be too late. I won't be able to help you. I can help you, but it's got to be right now, no more delays, and in order to do that I need confirmation that Mr. Truman is okay."
Mitchell leaned out with the M4A1 gripped in both hands, toggled the automatic setting and sprayed the door. The sound was incredibly loud in the office, like standing under a waterfall. He ducked back into the desk and turned to Truman whose eyes were now clear and focused, maybe from the jackhammer burp of the rifle. Mitchell laid the muzzle of the gun against his chest and fired two rounds, then reversed his grip and stuck the scalding barrel under the shelf of his own chin.
It was over. He'd expected a surge of relief to wash over him, a lifting of pressure, like waking up one day after a long illness to find yourself miraculously well. It didn't happen. He felt no different.
There was just one last thing to do…
Mitchell knew they'd be coming in fast now after he fired those last shots. Probably with gas and rubber bullets, or some other non-lethals. They'd want to take him alive if possible, and avoid serious injury to Truman.
He was distantly aware of activity around him; tubular objects descended from the ceiling and bounced across the floor toward him. They exploded in phosphorescent novae. Claps of thunder reverberated in Mitchell's ear drums and rattled his chest. A concussive wall of heat swept through the room, whipping up scraps of paper and scattering bullet casings. He squeezed his eyes against the starbursts and searing wind, and he saw Marilyn, her arms stretched out, beckoning him into their fold. A glimmer of gold confirmed she was wearing her wedding ring, and when he looked down at his hand he saw that his, too, had somehow returned.
He ran to her.
They'd quietly unscrewed the hinges from the door. When the D-Class started shooting again he called it. They deposited flashbangs and breached the office.
Captain Paul Wilson picked his way through the room. It looked like it'd been hit by a tornado. The stun grenades smoldered in melted patches of carpet. What a mess, he thought. The two bodies were strung along the far wall, wedged between it and the desk. It was hard to tell, but it looked like Truman had suffered several gunshot wounds to the abdomen and pelvis. The D-Class had chosen the easy route, taking his own life by blowing a hole the size of a golf ball through the roof of his skull. A spray of blood and bone and gray matter painted the wall above the corpse.
Paul rubbed his forehead. There would be an internal investigation, and he already had a sinking feeling that it would close without a satisfying resolution. The D-Class's cell was currently being tossed, but no note had turned up yet, and it probably never would. He'd glanced at the D-Class's file when the call had come in — nothing had immediately jumped out at him, but he'd mentally checkmarked the Keter assignment from last year for further review. There was something familiar about that.
His team was on its way out; forensics had arrived along with the on-site medical examiner. Paul was turning to leave when he saw a crumpled picture on the floor.
"Hey, what is that?" he said to the technician hunkered over it. "Let me see that, will you?"
The forensic tech passed him the photograph. It was blistered from the flashbangs, the edges curled, but he recognized the woman as a researcher's wife. He'd been introduced to her at a Christmas party or similar work-related event. And the picture wasn't exactly the type you framed and put on your desk for anyone to see. He couldn't remember the name of the researcher at the moment, it'd been last year or the year before. Paul made another mental checkmark to ask around and find out who the researcher was as a possible lead. Maybe Truman and this guy's wife were having an affair, but if it was related to the murder-suicide, he couldn't imagine how the D-Class had become involved.
He handed the photograph back. "Thank you," he said, and left the office, rubbing his forehead.
He's ordered to step inside the cell of a giant midge. It clings to the ceiling like a parasitic chandelier.
A voice over the intercom assures him it's sedated.
There's an unsettling smell, metallic, like plunging your nose into a piggy-bank. As he inches deeper inside the room a gallon of digestive juices is dumped on his head from the skip's proboscis — a showerhead raining acid. There's a parchment rustle of its wings as they unfold and it swings from the ceiling in a languid, graceful drop that seems to play out in slow motion. He stumbles toward the outer containment door, already sealing shut on him, and when he glances over his shoulder his corroded face stares back, reflected and distorted a hundred times in the midge's compound eyes. It's like watching himself melt in a shattered fun-house mirror. And as he looks on, barely recognizing himself, a pocket rips open in his cheek, releasing an effluvium of blood and steam. The lobe of his ear is distended and droops to his shoulder in the shape of a tear drop. He's screaming and then —
D-29840 snapped awake. His pillow was soaked with sweat and his heart was racing. He thought he'd be used to it by now, it'd been years, but every night it was the same.
He climbed out of bed. It was easier now that the bottom bunk was vacant.
The cell door buzzed. He hopped out and lined up along the yellow band to start his day. He was practically asleep on his feet; the last forty-eight hours had been spent in a cramped, stale room getting shouted at and accused by jackbooted interrogators itching to lay their hands on him. When he did manage to close his eyes it was the midge he saw.
Yes, his bunkmate had been acting strange the past few weeks. How so? Just different, more introverted and depressed. No, he didn't know the cause of it or what he'd intended to do.
He'd been cooperative while supplying them with no useful information. If they had an anomalous lie detector or truth serum, they didn't use it. It'd been myopic to use Mitchell, he knew he'd be fingered as a possible accomplice, but he couldn't have allowed the opportunity to slip away. A new amnestitized transfer and they practically dropped him in his lap.
After roll call D-29840 showered, powdered his stump with talcum and fastened his prosthesis. He'd managed to squeeze through the containment chamber's door… or most of him had. The last thing he remembered before passing out — and the point where the dream always ended if he didn't wake up first — was the midge on the other side of the door, its feeder inserted into the heel of his shoe, vacuuming all the liquids from the foot still lodged inside. The translucent straw turned pink as it greedily sucked up blood, while another orifice on the end of the proboscis vomited enzymes to break the flesh and bone down into a consumable puddle.
Best not to think about it, but impossible to avoid. Might as well try pissing in the wind. After tightening his prosthetic foot he moved to the sink to brush his teeth, where his disfigured face waited, lurking inside the fogged mirror. They'd been able to stitch up the hole in his cheek; it was nothing more than a puckered scar, the standard train tracks of a suture seam. What remained of his ear was a pulpy nodular, and his eye was the blank white orb of a feeding shark. He was blind and deaf on that side.
He limped to the cafeteria and grabbed a tray of food, always last in line. He chose a secluded seat and eased himself into the chair with only a slight twinge in his back. The plastic fork was unwieldy, gripped clumsily in his right-hand; a natural southpaw, his dominant hand had caught the brunt of the midge's caustic downpour while trying to shield his face, and now all that remained was a partial thumb and index finger, like a pincer.
Not that he was complaining. It was important to remain useful to the site, even if it meant picking up their trash and scrubbing their toilets. Light custodial work was all he was good for since the accident. If you didn't tow the line you might just wake up one day assigned as a chew toy for a non-Euclidean nightmare surfer.
D-60914, a recent transfer that went by the ridiculous moniker of Gucci, sat down in the chair across from him. D-29840 didn't look up from his breakfast as he shoveled food into his mouth.
"What's this bastard's name again?" Gucci asked, also not making eye contact.
He's in the ICU for three months, fading in and out. His entire existence is trapped in a womb of pain, swaddling him, cradling him, unrelenting, refusing to release and birth him. There's nothing except the pain, no time when it wasn't present. When he's awake he dreams about falling through the ice of a frozen lake, the water so cold it numbs him to the marrow. When he's asleep he dreams about the midge.
He's kept in a plastic tent, lying on a hospital bed. He's swathed in bandages that constantly need to be changed because his body is a single weeping blister; the skin stretches so tight it cracks like a dry river bed and secretes pints of a clear, fetid fluid. IV drips appear to feed the fluid straight back into him. The tent expands and contracts with the respiration of some machine — he's surrounded by a lot of machines, all beeping and flashing numbers, an entire appliance store, toasters and microwaves and cathode rays…
D-29840 said around a piece of buttered toast, "His name is Leo Cherri. He's the head of the site infirmary."
"Leo Cherri," choruses Gucci.
He recognizes the voice of one of the doctors, and knows he's awake because the midge isn't there. The doctor is silhouetted against the tent as a dark splotch. The doctor is speaking to someone on the phone — to him it's a one-sided conversation.
Gucci raised a mug of coffee to his lips but didn't take a sip. "Okay," he said. "Why'd he do it? I mean, did I do something to this guy?"
"What could you've done to him to warrant this?" he retorted. "Spill his drink? Not address him properly as 'doctor'? No, you didn't do anything to him, not that I'm aware. He's just a petty, vindictive piece of shit, likes to throw his weight around and take his crap home life out on us."
"Hey, I'm done with this guy. He's not improving, and I'm not wasting anymore resources on him. Even if he did pull through he's not going to be a productive Foundation employee. …The Hippocratic oath doesn't mean I have to spends months trying to save a lost cause. …I don't know why you're making such a big deal of this. He's probably a rapist or serial killer or something. Why do you care?"
He's burning up. If a drop of water fell on him it would sizzle and dance like he's a hot skillet. He tears at the bandages, pulling damp wrappings off his forearms, along with bits of skin and scabs.
If the doctor notices his distress he ignores it. "Well, it's unfortunate, but these things happen. How long are you going to keep blaming yourself? …It's not just about the cost, although I admit that's certainly a factor. We have a finite supply and these things aren't cheap. Believe it or not the Foundation's coffers aren't bottomless, and I have to answer for my department's budget. …What long-term effects? He's got third-degree chemical burns over fifty-percent of his body. Nothing's going to change."
D-29840 knew his reach, both literally and figuratively, was short. He'd never be able to get to the site director, and he wasn't even sure what an O5 was, exactly. He'd settle for what he could grab, the lower rungs on the ladder. A lifetime of poverty had cultivated his palate so that the most tasteful morsels were also the cheapest cuts. He'd manipulated Jordan into murdering the Level-2 researcher that had failed to ensure proper containment procedures were followed, leading to his current disfigurement. Mitchell had — according to recent gossip, and the agents interrogating him hadn't dissuaded him from the idea — somehow blown Truman up and taken on a whole task force with just a dowel and a piece of string.
"I'll hold off on the termination request for another week. But if he doesn't get better — and I'm talking parting-of-the-Red-Sea miracle better — within that time, I'm going to submit the request and after that — " The doctor pins the phone between his ear and shoulder and raises both hands in a gesture of defeat. " — I wash my hands clean. They can use him as fodder for the wasp factory far as I'm concerned. …Yeah, I'll put it on your tab."
The phone is hung up. He's still ripping at the bandages. Staples have popped loose along his ribs and blood sheets down his side. His left foot and hand burn with an itch so fierce it makes him want to attack it with a rototiller.
An alarm shrills and he's aware that the doctor has turned his attention to him. He doesn't care, doesn't stop, he's going to combust, needs to get this gauze off before he goes up like a gasoline-soaked rag.
The doctor moves over to his tent and trails his fingers along the outside layer of plastic. "What're you doing up, Crispy?" he says. "You hear what I just said? You better listen, not that you're going to remember any of it. In another week it's bye-bye Demerol, hello grandma. My, what big teeth you have!"
"Here, I got something for you." D-29840 fumbled in his pants and passed Gucci a photograph under the table. He'd recently pilfered it from a philologist's desk and thought it would serve his purposes. "You get caught with that thing, you found it, got it? I don't know what they'll do to you, terminate you probably, lie to you if you're lucky, tell you it's not who you think it is."
"This is her?" Gucci asked.
He nodded. "That's her."
D-29840 finished the last of his coffee and stood up to bus his tray. "Wait a week before you contact me again." Give it time, let that picture worm its way into his head until it was all he could think about.
"Wait. What was that word you said I used to call her?"
"Ingénue," he said. "You called her ingénue."