“I was only there to withdraw some money from the company account, I swear! It’s totally legitimate…a lot of business do it, you know? And then they came in, like…like something out of a military show. They started yelling at all of us and said that they weren’t after us, that they just wanted the money. So we lay down on the floor and waited because I’m not some kind of hero, right? But then their leader – I remember he had burn scars on his arm, horrible burn scars – went into the vault for a while. I don’t know what he wanted there. I’ve been branch manager for the last five years and there’s no cash in that vault. It’s just safe deposit boxes back there. Anyway, he went to the vault and when he came back out…something exploded back there, and we came back out he just started shooting his own team! I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s just lucky I got out of there alive.”
~Eyewitness testimony from an unnamed individual following a robbery at the First Bank of Limassol on May 5th, 2013. This report, as well as other sworn testimonies, were compiled by Interpol Agent Neetipal Adlai, due to suspicion of connections to a prior case. Noteworthy because, according to bank managers and an exhaustive audit of inventory, nothing was stolen.
In short order, the pit became Asher’s entire life. Awake, he stared into the darkness, feeling the unpleasant sensation of his mind slipping away like oil over water. When his body demanded it, he closed his eyes, even though there was no discernible difference. He did not dream. The first few times that he woke, after that initial night, Asher experienced several heartbeats of nightmarish terror before his memory reasserted itself. That passed after the fourth waking. Following that, the difference between consciousness and blissful unawareness lost all meaning to him.
Without any means to track the passage of time, Asher released his grip on specifics. He decided that ‘day’ was whenever he was absolutely sure that he was awake; in contrast, if he was not quite sure if the blackness that threatened to rob him of his senses was the pit or merely his own eyelids, that was ‘night.’
Each ‘morning,’ he woke to find a tray of some food, just within reach of his free hand. He obviously could not see what was in the tray. It might have been poison. Part of Asher hoped that it was poison. But if the people who had captured him wished for his death, there were simpler ways, he decided. So, he pulled the food closer and ate mechanically, not tasting anything that he put into his mouth. He chewed, swallowed, tore at some mystery meal, and chewed again. It wasn’t enough to keep the knives of hunger pains from digging into his belly but, whatever it was, it was enough that he doubted starvation was a concern.
On the fifth ‘day,’ Asher began to talk. He had sat quietly for many nights, staring solidly in a single direction as though he could force illumination into the pit by sheer force of will. Internally, a never-ending recitation of three words – “Devlin is coming. Devlin is coming.” – had kept him from losing all hope. Now, he spoke out loud.
“I never thought things would end like this.” Asher wasn’t sure if he was speaking to himself or to his captors. It didn’t matter, either way; no reply came from the walls around him, except for his own voice turned back on its owner.
“I thought it would be someone from the Street,” Asher continued, surprising himself. He hadn’t thought of the Street for years. Since he’d managed to claw his way out of that life, away from the gangs and the midnight violence, the dangerous neighborhood where he’d first cut his teeth had remained an area of his life that required no analysis or thought. It was easier not to think about the things he’d seen. It was better.
“Made a lot of enemies, getting out the way I did. A lot of matones with long knives and long memories that got something to prove. Little kid like me, getting away with as much as I did?” He laughed to himself. “Yeah, they would have come for me, if they could have found me. Guess they couldn’t. Unless one of you people are cashing in for what I owe them?”
Silence. Asher tried to count the seconds, timing them to the beating of his own heart, and lost track. He tried once more, without any greater success.
“Didn’t think so,” he said. “That’d be too neat. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and blah blah blah. No, you guys must be something different. Nothing like the idiots and assholes I fleeced for thousands.” He paused, gathering his thoughts like scattered rags. “You probably know all about that, don’t you, though? I figure anyone involved in all the things I found out about – probably more than that – makes a point to look up everybody they come in contact with. And this pit…you were planning on this. So you know what I did to get off the Street. You know who I hurt.”
He waited, without any real hope, for a response. When none came, he shifted and bumped his knee against the now-empty tray.
“You want me to apologize?” Asher asked. “You want to me say that I’m sorry for what I did and who I did it to? ‘cause I won’t. I’m not going to pretend that he wouldn’t have turned on me, just as soon as it was convenient. It’s not like we were friends. We worked the alleys together, sure, but he had connections. Knew people in the right places. It was only a matter of time before someone picked him up and then what? You think he would’ve come back for me? You think he would have risked a spot in one of the gangs, just to help out some snot-nosed kid with quick fingers?”
Still, no answer. In a way, Asher found that he appreciated the silence. He was aware that his captors were probably listening to every word he said, but that didn’t bother him so much. If they were looking at him with judging eyes, he couldn’t see them; if they were offering words of pity or condemnation, he couldn’t hear them. The only thing he saw or felt or heard was the darkness, the feel of cold stone against the patches of unblackened skin on his arms, and the echo of his own voice. It wasn’t peaceful, but it was…
Asher blinked. His position had changed. His foot had been outstretched earlier and, now, it was curled up underneath him. When had that happened? How had that happened? He extended his leg cautiously until his foot bumped against a tray. He hooked it and brought it close. A brief, cautious examination with the fingers on his free hand informed him that the tray was loaded with food once more.
He must have fallen asleep, without realizing it. Unconsciousness had fallen on him like a heavy blanket, smothering his thoughts too quickly for him to even realize. Was this the first time? If not, how many other times had it happened? It might not be the sixth ‘day,’ at all. It could be the sixteenth. Maybe the sixtieth.
How long had it been since he’d seen daylight? There had been a voice that spoke to him on the first ‘day.’ When had that happened? Asher tried to piece together some semblance of time and, unsurprisingly, failed.
Asher faced the darkness and sighed. He reset the counter in his head to zero. In his mind, the same litany – “Devlin is coming. Devlin is coming.” – continued, but even in his isolation, Asher could feel that the tiny voice was somehow weaker than it had been before.
Devlin didn’t come.
‘Days’ passed and no one came. Asher was alone with only his thoughts and the creeping certainty that he was losing his mind. He tried to keep a firm grip on his internal wanderings, but most of his early attempts proved fruitless. As soon as he started to feel the shape of things, it slipped away, draining away as sleep or distraction interrupted any attempt at musing or consideration.
His memories of the Street were the only memories he shared with his captors. He vowed not to give them anything more. They had his body, after all. They were making a solid attempt to steal away his mind. He would not give them his story, as well.
Eventually, he discovered one technique that allowed him to slow the steady seepage of intellect and reason, even if he couldn’t completely stop it. Asher planned. He had no target in mind but he didn’t lack for imagination. He imagined a goal – a vault, a priceless work of art, some poorly guarded stash of precious gems – and constructed elaborate obstacles. How would he break into a house in the Hamptons, if the busy season was fast approaching and the target residence was protected by a Safe Core system? What if an original Picasso was sequestered behind several redundant layers of security in a private residence in Vaxholm, while a rival crew was competing for the same score? If fifty thousand dollars in Samurai Bonds were being transported from Sao Paolo to Miami, what tricks would be needed to replace the bonds with worthless paper while in transit?
And so on, and so on. He built the plans step by step in his head, placing each step delicately on top of the one before like an elaborate house of cards. When sleep fell on him and swept away everything he’d done, Asher started over from scratch, correcting earlier mistakes as he went. When each plan was absolutely perfect, without any flaw or failing that might be exploited, he destroyed the house of cards himself and started with a new idea.
This kept his mind as sharp as could be expected, but he couldn’t completely stop the damage. He was able to assess his own mental state, in a detached sort of way, and realized that he was losing the ability to remember certain things. Other bits of knowledge remained, but it became more difficult to retrieve them when necessary. He transposed names in his mind, forgot places, and lost the thread more times than he could count. When this happened, he discarded the plan and started from scratch again. He got better at it. It became easier to size up an imaginary problem, to see the movable parts within the machinery, and create an outline as he practiced.
He had a lot of opportunity to practice.
When Asher started to hallucinate, it was almost expected. The appearance of a long ribbon of light, shifting and sliding from one shape to another as it danced across the pit, only confirmed what he already knew. He tried to ignore the dancing ribbon as he constructed his elaborate house of cards, but the luminescent string wove its way between the cracks on each level, and disrupted his ability to focus.
After several aborted attempts to build a plan without any cracks that the line could find its way into, Asher started to create schemes that deliberately allowed room for the light. He incorporated it, in all of its unpredictable capriciousness, into the plans. It only took him a few tries, and a few more ‘days,’ before he succeeded in making these new accommodations. None of the other hallucinations – shapes of various sizes, balls of squiggly lines like dirt rolling off of Pig-Pen, patches of pure white that blanked out his ability to see the shape of his own creations – caused him any more trouble than the first, unplanned-for mental intruder.
Still, he had no visitors and the digitized voice didn’t speak again until several ‘days’ later, while Asher was struggling with a complicated mental extraction.
“Hope,” the voice said, without preamble, “is a fickle thing.”
Asher paused in his contemplations, maintaining the shape of his imagined plan through force of habit. He said nothing. In fact, he didn’t trust his voice not to rasp or fail him. He hadn’t spoken aloud in a very long time.
“When one has hope, one can endure anything. Any method of torture, all attempts at manipulation…hope can bolster the strength of will needed to survive, intact.” Pause. “Do you have hope, Mister Knight? Do you still believe you will be freed by any means, except by our will?”
He thought about that, even though the answer sprang to his lips immediately. Did he have any hope? Did he even possess the capacity for it anymore? His time in the pit had stretched on long enough that time no longer held any serious meaning. He slept, ate, diagrammed in his mind, and slept again. Isolation had taken more than his freedom; it had taken more than even his mind, as he feared; it had taken his humanity. Without human interaction, chained to a wall in a dark hole by mysterious masters, Asher had become nothing more than a machine.
And Devlin…Devlin hadn’t come. His partner and the closest thing to a friend anyone like Asher was likely to ever have in his life had left him. He had probably fled the country inches ahead of the authorities in St. Petersburg, abandoning Asher in the devastation left behind at the scene of the botched heist.
Asher wasn’t sure if he could really hold that against him, though. The fire had been like a ravening animal, consuming everything it touched with wild abandon. If not for the intervention of his captors, Asher would likely have died. If that had happened, Devlin would have made the right choice: better to run and have a single member of their partnership survive than to throw both lives away. The fact that Asher had been captured was something that neither of them could have planned for.
Asher swallowed twice and tried his voice. It was rough and uneven, but the word was still clear. “No.”
The digitized voice didn’t speak for a second and, somehow, the silence carried a smug quality. “The worst things that we do,” the voice continued, “we do to ourselves. Hope bolsters the spirit, strengthens resolve, and yet…its absence brings only the truest despair imaginable. Wouldn’t it be easier to not have hope, at all?”
The tone and inflection of the voice – difficult to distinguish correctly due to the vocal effects that served to mask it – sounded rhetorical. Asher responded anyway. “Is this all you’re going to do? Talk at me until I die of boredom? Get to the point already. What do you want from me?”
“We have already told you this. Your services, Mister Knight. We require your services.”
“For what? Clearly, you have power. You’ve got knowledge. You’d have to have sources, if you could figure out my target and lay a trap for me.” He shifted his weight, relieving the pressure on his shackled wrist by a barely perceptible fraction. “What do you need me for?”
Silence. Then, “The nature of our business requires anonymity. The benefits that this provides far outweigh any perceived deficiencies. However, deficiencies do exist.”
Asher turned that around in his head, examining it from different angles until an answer clicked into place. “You can’t act publicly,” he said. “So you need someone to go into the field for you?”
“That is essentially correct.”
He laughed, aiming for sarcasm and landing a little short of the mark. The sound came out choked and halting, instead. “And for this, you needed to kidnap me, lock me up into a pit for God knows how long, and leave me to lose my fucking mind? What the hell makes you think I’ll do anything for you? You honestly don’t think I’d rather die to help the assholes who chained me up in here?”
Asher blinked at that blunt response. He gathered what remained of his wits, preparing to lob a scathing comeback at his captors, when something clicked in the wall behind him and the shackle around his wrist fell open. His position – slumped with his back against the pit’s rounded wall, his free hand supporting a little bit of his weight – saved him from falling to the ground, although he did slip slightly.
A very dim light came on from somewhere above him. Even the faintest bulb was much more than his eyes were used to after so many ‘days’ in pure, abject blackness. Asher shielded his eyes with his previously shackled hand for three minutes before he risked looking at his surroundings.
The pit, as he could now see it by the dim light from above, looked very similar to how he had imagined it in his mind. The space in front of him was completely empty, save for the empty tray where his food had been. His prison wasn’t a perfect circle, however. While the wall he leaned against was rounded, the area across from him went deeper into the building…wherever or whatever ‘the building’ was. At the farthest end of this indenture, Asher saw a television screen. Atop that, the clear, bulbous shape that Asher recognized as a camera lens pointed in his direction.
“We are aware of what you would and would not prefer to do. That is irrelevant, however. You will provide us with your skills and, in exchange, we will bring an end to your suffering.”
Asher spoke before the thoughts had a real chance to crystallize in his mind. “So you’re just going to keep me locked up until I give you what you want? Why turn the lights on, then? Why go through all that whole speech about hope and despair?”
Instead of an answer, an unseen door slid open near the television screen at the far end of the pit’s indenture. No less than four burly men entered the pit through the open door and stalked across the room to Asher. He struggled to stand upright, perhaps to resist or to escape – though he was willing to fight for his freedom, he was fully aware that his condition wouldn’t have allowed him to make a final stand for any length of time long enough to matter – but his body betrayed him. Two men stood on opposite sides of him, slipping their hands into his underarms and hauling him up until his toes were barely brushing against the ground beneath them.
“Despair is first,” the digitized voice said. “And the easiest. In order to forge true compliance, there is another step.”
“And what’s that supposed to be?” Asher asked, even though a growing pit in the bottom of his stomach told him what the answer might be.
“Horror,” the voice replied. “Fear, unlike anything you have experienced before. We have taken away what you wished for before. Now, we will make you wish for relief.”
The men began dragging him forward. He struggled weakly against them and was unable to do much more than tire himself out. They said nothing, even while he kicked at their shins and scratched at their faces. They were like machines. They were, essentially, what Asher had nearly become in his own isolation. That realization, and the dawning horror that came on its heels, followed him as they carried him out of the room and into the light.
The light was far worse than the dark could have dreamed of being.