One guard walked ahead of me. I heard the other walk behind.
They stopped at the end of the hall, by a metal ladder leading up to a hatch in the ceiling. With their rifles parallel, they told me to Go up now. I climbed. Perhaps I was being transferred to a new wing of the prison.
Once I was fully inside, the hatch closed automatically, and I found myself alone in an empty vestibule with a wooden door, marked with a laminated sign “Prisoners please proceed to the end of the hall.” I opened the door, and found myself faced with a curving corridor, completely different to any other part of the prison.
The carpet was plush and patterned, and the walls were punctuated by evenly spaced unmarked doors, each one identical, with ornamental sconces between them. It was disorienting. It was like being in a fancy hotel, but without any numbers on the doors. I knew I would have to count them in order to maintain a sense of my position. I closed the door behind me and walked down the corridor. One door, two doors, three doors.
A thought intruded upon my counting: this was the first carpet I had walked on in weeks. Maybe even months. It felt so soft and new that I imagined lying down and pressing my face into it, and falling asleep there, my first good night’s sleep in weeks. It was a sad fantasy, though. For one thing, the guards would never permit it, and for another, the very fact that I should even have such an impulse was a sign that I was weakening mentally.
I noticed myself slowing down, just to enjoy the sensation on the soles of my feet, but I knew the guards would probably inflict some arbitrary punishment for being late. In prison, one mustn’t be late for anything, ever. I stepped lively, then, and the corridor curved anti-clockwise and then clockwise like a letter S. The doors came and went like bar lines on a rippling piece of sheet music. Seven doors, eight doors.
The corridor started to feel sinister, not because of what it was — which was pleasant and clean — but because it was part of a prison. Presumably these rooms served a corrective or punitive function of some sort. I did not, and would not, let my guard down.
After eleven doors and twelve lights on the left hand wall, the corridor finally terminated at a set of white and gold double doors with a second laminated sign: “Prisoners please enter.” As I pushed one of the doors inwards, my eyes had difficulty adjusting to a dark room, that flickered with blue light.
The room was all shadow, and panels of brilliant blue. At first I thought it might be a movie theatre of some kind, or perhaps a chapel with blue stained glass windows, but I soon realised it was an underwater viewing theatre for a vast fish tank. Three sides of the room had tall, wide windows. The air in here was cool and pure, even after the door swung shut behind me. I curled my toes to feel the carpet — shallower but also more yielding.
Gauzy stripes of blue sunlight lanced onto the floor. A school of blue spotted ribbon-tail rays swooped and looped around the room in arabesques. Above them, darting in and out of artificial towers of weeds and coral, I saw smaller fish that I did not recognise. So it was an aquarium, then?
I stepped towards the glass, but before I could reach it, a man’s voice behind me said “Please take a seat.”
I turned to see, near the doorway, two armchairs, one occupied by a man in a white tee shirt, fashionably frayed jeans, and Converse Sneakers. He was unshaven, but had an expensive haircut. He held an iPad that lit his face gold from below. I had no clear sense of his voice, except that it seemed soft.
He gestured at the other chair. So I walked towards him and sat. The seats were positioned very close together. So be it. He did not have a gun. He did not look up from his iPad.
As my eyes adjusted, I started to see that he was strikingly handsome. I couldn’t tell if he was 23 or 43. He looked young, but seemed more comfortable in himself than young men often were. The younger male guards were sensitive, reactive, fearful, violent. They were more scared of me than I was of them. They were scared of themselves.
Not this one. This one, then, was not a guard. He may have been a bureaucrat, but even that was unlikely. Young bureaucrats dress conservatively and well or they don’t get promoted. High level bureaucrats dress casually, but this man looked too young to have already been promoted. Not a bureaucrat, then.
Former Military? This made sense.
My mind quickly returned to its surroundings. I found myself squinting, not because of my eyes,but as a response to the strangeness of walking from a prison cell to an aquarium. Why would the prison have an aquarium? Or why might it adjoin an aquarium?
Was I near the coast, then? I don’t remember hearing waves at night, but perhaps the prison was too noisy for me to notice the sea. I had assumed they had taken me to another part of the city, not all the way across the country.
Perhaps I had been drugged in the truck that brought me here, and not realised it, only waking up half a day or a whole day later. It was possible. But such reasoning was predicated on me being near the coast. Was this a fish tank, or did the windows directly join the sea? No, it is unlikely there would be so many blue spotted ribbon-tail rays in the wild this close to humans. Just how large was the tank, then? Could it be a projection or a hallucination?
“Don’t worry,” said the man, reading the thoughts on my face with a glance. “It’s real.” He smiled and fanned out his fingers towards the glass, as if he were a realtor showing me a villa I might like to buy.
I wanted to ask why it was here, why I was here, but knew I could be punished for asking. My ribs still hadn’t healed from the last question I had asked a guard, and that was surely more than two weeks ago. My chest crackled when I inhaled. My skin was still discoloured. And all because I had asked the time — or had asked anything at all. It was that beating, beating number 5, that made it clear to me that the guards would respond to any question, no matter how innocuous, with bodily violence.
Understanding these new rules didn’t make me stronger. It made me weaker, more anxious. Not all knowledge is power, I suppose. There are some knowledges that keep you awake at night, that make you weaker. All day and all night, for weeks, the threat of violence had been the only shape of my awareness.
The man poured a glass of water from a pitcher atop a reflective coffee table. The air in here was so pure. He passed me the water, but I did not drink it, nor would I unless I saw him do the same.
But he read that thought too, probably in my hesitation, and so he ostentatiously poured himself a glass of water, and gulped it loudly. He was treating me like a wild animal that needed settling. It was probably wise. I watched the cartilage and muscle in his neck move up and down as he swallowed, and found it beautiful.
So I drank.
He said “I’m from a private information company. Honeywise.”
I felt a question in me, as if the safety catch had been removed in my mind, and the question was on my tongue ready to fire. So I fired.
“Is that your name or the company’s name?” I watched his jaw. It did not clench. Asking a question didn’t bother him.
“Both.” Then an unexpected micro-expression flickered across his face. What was it? Amusement? It was almost flirtatious. That micro-expression of his had as little place in this prison as the aquarium did.
A school of pink fish darted towards the window out of the blue, and then darted back again, out of sight. Maybe we were next to the sea, I reasoned. What inland aquarium could afford such a large tank?
I looked at Honeywise as he looked at me. He had a tennis player’s body — thin but strong. He was obviously well-hung — the stretching denim at his crotch was increasingly distracting. He was unselfconscious about it, or perhaps proud of it. As he caught me noticing him, he smiled and moved his pelvis in his seat just a little.
I needed to focus, to come back to the moment. Don’t lust after the power, not when it can use your desire against you, or punish you for desiring at all. I looked at the nearly empty glass in my hand. He wasn’t saying anything, and the pressure of the silence seemed to build up again. I needed that pressure to discharge. I wasn’t handling it.
“An information company,” I said aloud. And then it clicked. “You’re here to interrogate me.”
“Yes. I’m sure you’ve been expecting this.”
Icy dread now. He was the interrogator. “I thought after all these weeks that they weren’t going to bother.”
I quickly reappraised the room, trying to see what kinds of torture instruments he might use, but there was nothing I could see, not even a camera. Everything was beautiful. Everything seemed fine. It was unnerving. If he was an interrogator then torture was surely part of his toolkit, as it was part of mine. If I could only see how he intended to hurt me, maybe I could prepare myself to bear it better. Think. Observe.
Not the air. Not the chair. Not the water.
No. wait. The glass. Of course. He must have put a patina of chemical inside my glass before I arrived. That way we could both drink the same water, but only I would consume the drug. Clever.
Mr Honeywise read the thoughts on my face again. “I’m not going to hurt you. I don’t believe in violence unless you want someone to retaliate. I want to make sure you don’t retaliate. That’s why you’re not restrained, not guarded, and not drugged. I intend for us to be co-operative in putting an end to this war. And here’s how I’m going to do it: I’m going to ask you four questions. You’re going to answer them however you please, and then you’re going to leave here, having helped me do my job.”
I was scared. I did not look him in the eye. I didn’t believe him. I knew bribery was just an opening gambit, and he probably would resort to drugs or violence or retaliation, especially once he discovered that I had no intention whatsoever of giving him any information at all. We had resisted too long, and too hard, to throw it all away now.
I reflected, somewhat coolly, that I was still attracted to him. I suppose, if I was honest with myself, I was attracted to all the male guards, even at their pettiest and most vindictive. That was my perversion, really: not to lust after power, but to lust after its complete exercise over me. It’s why my partners were all Resistance leaders. It’s why being choked and threatened tipped me over the edge of orgasm. It’s why I was so scared of being raped in prison; I wasn’t just scared of it happening; I was scared of liking it. These were perverse thoughts, intruding at a crucial moment. Stay in this moment.
“It’s okay if you need to laugh; it’s a good way to defuse tension.” Honeywise’s voice was warm, not sarcastic, but it scared me anyway. How well could he read my face?
I protested: “I wasn’t-.”
But his smile was so parental, so indulgent. I used to be good at mind games. Not today.
He continued: “It’s okay. This is the first question. Answer it however you like. There is no right or wrong response.” A pause.
Then, “Are you sitting in a chair?”
A control question. I reassured myself: Honeywise was not the only interrogator in the room. I used control questions too. I knew just how he would rely on my answer, and how I could exploit that reliance.
I leaned forward in my chair. “Yes,” I said, and committed to memory the melody of my yes, and the posture and feelings associated with it. If I could perform a repetition, or near-repetition of that melody and posture, then I could falsify an answer later. It was all about matching the control question’s cadence.
“Good. This is the second question. Again, answer it however you like.” Another pause. “How ugly would you say you are, on a scale of 0–10, with 0 being only normally ugly, and 10 being exceptionally ugly?”
It was a provocation, and it worked. He was trying to provoke me into making a mistake by inducing strong emotions. I used similar techniques myself all the time, but I had never called someone ugly in order to provoke them before. I decided to use that technique myself when I get rescued.
If I get rescued.
I realised that the best way to stay in control of my anger was to admit to it. “Your question makes me angry. That’s all I have to say,” I said. And nothing more.
Honeywise, though, smiled as he tapped something on the iPad. “Excellent. Thank you.” He seemed genuinely pleased — it was the kind of smile one tries to suppress, but cannot because it is so joyful.
He was a good liar. He was a good interrogator. I was not winning this.
He continued: “Now, two more questions. I told you there would be four. First,” and then the characteristic pause, “What is missing from this room?”
I frowned. Three out of four questions, all wasted on irrelevancies and oblique approaches? What was the long game here?
Perhaps they would send me down here every week for the same useless questions with Mr Honeywise, and he would stay beautiful while I deteriorated. Week after week, I would come down to this soft, cool, beautiful place. Seeing Mr Honeywise would become, soon enough, the highlight of every week. He would be the only man who was ever nice to me, the one I thought about when I jerked off. By week seven I would start saying to him “If you let me hug you, I’ll give you a clue.” I would be pathetic, debased.
Or perhaps Honeywise was merely a foil for a second, nastier interrogator that I was yet to meet. A more traditional torturer. Unless this was torture. Perhaps the absurdity of this encounter was not meant to extract information at all immediately, but was just a particularly nasty way to deconstruct me.
Fair enough, I suppose. That is how I‘’d break him if he were my prisoner. I would blur the line between truth and fiction. I would make him afraid of me, but see freedom through me. I would mash and knead his consciousness until he told me all about Mrs Davis, and the Serpent Crew, and the Resistance, and the Pollux Program. I would tell him there would be only four questions, but I would ask fifty, or a hundred, and keep prefacing each one with “now for question three.” But you already asked question three five times. “No I didn’t. You’re imagining things.”
Honeywise leaned forward. I could see his muscles move under his shirt — even the side of his torso was muscular. He was waiting.
A large silver fish darted past — something sleek and silver and large. It shot around the room them vanished.
I was off balance. Okay, I was off balance. Well done, Honeywise.
“Sorry, what was the question?” I asked.
But he did not repeat it. He took my response as an answer, and typed it out, and I don’t know why but that made me panic. I think it was panic.
After tapping a few words or numbers on his iPad, Honeywise reached his right hand inside the collar of his shirt to rub the muscles on top of his left shoulder. I watched. I could see his shoulder and collarbone was covered in freckle and muscle. He looked at me looking at him, but I did not flinch from the intimacy. My cock responded by pulsing slightly. Was I drugged? I think not. I knew euphoric drugs, having used them. I knew anaesthetics. I knew narcotics. I was an expert in drugging people to get the truth out of them.
Our eyes were locked now, and Honeywise’s gaze was sympathetic. He seemed to feel sorry for me. He probably hated being here as much as I did. These stupid questions were probably an experimental form of interrogation that Honeywise was contractually obliged to test. I felt the pointlessness of it, and I know he did too.
Had we not been at war, I thought Honeywise and I might be friends or lovers. Or at least fond colleagues. We would learn from the same scholars. Honeywise would write high level memoranda about the latest interrogation science, and I would learn from him, because he was better at this than me. But we obviously had sexual chemistry, even in a situation as bizarre and oppositional as this. The ribbon-tail rays swam past the glass in sine curves in and out of the blue.
I realised I was dissociating. Didn’t care. This whole thing? Pointless. Honeywise put the iPad down on the table, yawned and stretched. As his shirt rose, I saw his Iliac Furrow, freckled and taut. He went on:
“Now for the second question of the last two questions. Remember, the previous question, that is, the one I just asked, was the first of the last two questions out of the four questions I told you I would ask at the start of this interview, the first two being before the last one.”
I supposed I would have to go back to my cell after this last, pointless question. Nothing would change. He asked:
“What is the address of the Southtown Resistance Cell, also called the Serpent Crew, run by Mrs Davis?”
I sighed and said: “It’s in the old police station on East Main Street, Batavia. There is no Mrs Davis — she was only ever an invention, a piece of disinformation meant to distract you from the truth that Teddy Roxburgh runs the Serpent Crew and is the architect of the Pollux Program. He lives in our safe house in Carew Tower, but you knew that already, because you thought he worked for you.”
“Well done, Honeywise. Please confirm that address.” said a tinny voice coming from the iPad.
Honeywise looked down and said “East Main Street, Batavia. Teddy Roxburgh runs the Pollux Program. I calculate a 94% probability this intelligence is reliable.”
I was going into shock. What had I just done?
“What is your advice?” said the voice.
Honeywise ignored me. “Bomb the police station. Bring Roxburgh in. Do it within the next 5 minutes. Make sure he doesn’t kill himself. I recommend sedation. I can be in Cincinnati in 3 hours. I’m releasing the prisoner.”
“Thank you. Out.”
Honeywise didn’t look at me as he stood up to leave. “You’re free to go,” he said. “I’ve left a gratuity of $100 on the table by way of thank you. That should get you to Wilmington, and maybe get you a meal. Don’t worry, you weren’t drugged, I used a behavioural technique to take control of your responses. You can take the first door on the right to get to the Moray Eel Cave. Exit through the Gift Shop.”
And then he was gone.
I was in shock. I could hardly breathe, I was panicking so much.
I had told him everything. Like that. But surely he had drugged me?
Why else would I tell him everything? I felt weak. I needed to get out of here before they changed their mind. I needed to borrow someone’s cellphone, to warn the Serpent Crew. Why wasn’t I moving? I wasn’t paralysed. I felt fine.
I stared at the windows. The ribbon-tail rays had blue spots and golden skin. They swam along pale stones, then up the glass, then down. They had nowhere to go, but were not distressed by their confinement.
I sat there for hours. I had killed everyone. Everyone. They would tell Teddy it was my fault. And it was.
I walked out of prison and no one cared, past the eels and sharks, to the Gift Shop. I held out my hand and ran it over the albino alligator toys and the marlin toys. No one cared. A little girl accidentally stepped on my bare foot, so I looked down at her and said “There’s a whole prison in the basement.” She didn’t care. She ran to Mommy. Behind the counter, I saw a television with a nature documentary about dolphins, and a news ticker scrolling past: “Resistance leader finally identified and caught. President declares War is Over.”
But nobody was watching.
I wasn’t sitting in a chair. I was 5, somewhat ugly. The only thing missing from that room was Honeywise and me. And the Serpent Crew were dead.
I walked down the boardwalk, and wished I could cry until it killed me.
“There is no more obnoxious way to punish a man than to force him to perform acts which make no sense to him, as when one empties and fills the same ditch indefinitely, when one makes soldiers who are being punished march up and down, or when one forces a schoolboy to copy lines.” Simone de Beauvoir