“I’ve got a job opportunity for you, if you’re interested. The pay’s good and, all things being equal, the targets aren’t the sort of people who’ll put up much resistance. At least…most of them aren’t. But the only trouble you’re likely to encounter is probably the sort you’ve been looking for, if my sources are correct: a certain bodyguard-cum-hitman, hired to protect a former acquaintance of mine. I’m only concerned with the leader of this little group. I want him alive, if at all possible. If you have to kill him…well, things happen, but there’s a bonus if you can bring him only slightly bruised. I assume you’ll want the girl. I leave any other parties that might be at the scene up to your own discretion. Previous recommendations lead me to believe that witnesses won’t be a problem. Further information is attached to this email, Aiden, and I look forward to doing business with you.”
~Email sent from firstname.lastname@example.org, intercepted via Stingray unit on November 29th, 2016. Attempts to trace message’s source or to determine the intended recipient failed, due to an implanted virus that resulted in several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment being forcibly decommissioned. Case file remains open; however, orders from the district chief have mandated that the investigation has a lower priority.
After a certain point, Asher decided that levels of pain were a purely academic distinction. The human body could only take so much abuse before the mind simply shut down any further input, perhaps in an effort to protect sanity. Beyond the moment when shock commandeered his senses, Asher was able to clinically assess the damage being caused to his body with the detachment of a surgeon. There, a neat incision designed specifically to allow the injection of some sort of liquid fire into the veins on his right thigh. There, the dislocation of yet another finger, completing the set of mangled digits. There, the exact instant when his lungs threatened to burst from sheer agony, when arms descended into the bucket of freezing water to haul him back up for another breath of oxygen.
His torturers were apparently skilled beyond measure, though. Asher was never allowed to spend too much time analyzing his own injuries from a great mental distance. When the pain no longer had any effect on him, he would be led from whatever chamber of hell the day had called for, back to a simple cot in a room with four, blank metal walls. Some sort of meal always waited for him atop a knee-high desk, the room’s only unnecessary decoration. The contents or ingredients used to prepare that meal were unclear. Asher suspected that, even if he had been able to muster the willpower to care, none of the man who carried him to and from his newest prison would tell him what food he shoveled into his body at the end of each session. It was possible that they didn’t even know, themselves.
An hour or so after eating would be spent staring into the middle distance, creating elaborate mental constructions, drawing lines in the air to connect one idea to another, and concocting intricate heists on buildings that didn’t exist for items he knew nothing about. This was the only part of his cycle that he enjoyed, inasmuch as he enjoyed anything. What happened to his body was out of his control. He could no more resist the men who dragged him off to his daily tortures than he could will himself to disappear through the walls themselves. The men, and occasionally women, who held the implements used to cut, bludgeon, and assault him showed Asher no mercy whether he cried out or stared up at them with flat, stoic eyes. But he could control his mind and he threw himself into the process of building fortifications around his thoughts with absolute abandon.
Eventually, he slipped into unconsciousness. Sometimes, this happened after he had finished with his day’s mental exercises; other times, exhaustion forced itself onto him without his consent. Mostly, he saw nothing but blackness while he slumbered. That reminded him of his time in the pit, when the darkness had threatened his sanity. Perhaps one cycle out of five, he dreamed about the world outside of the complex he was now trapped within. Those dreams ranged from his time on the Street, to the underworld connections who might have played a part in his capture, and even included variants of the disastrous job in St. Petersburg. In those visions, the reality of that event changed to suit his whims: he escaped before the burning beam of wood fell in his path; he told Devlin about his plan and, together, the two of them had managed to contrive a way to slip the noose his captors had set for him; he was just fast enough that, when the beam fell from the rooftop, it crushed his skull and left him dying on the floor of the mansion where he’d been hiding.
That last dream came more frequently than the others, as Asher’s time at his captor’s mercy grew longer and longer.
Inevitably, however, he awoke to find himself still in the sterile metal room, still unable to see any possible escape from the complex that seemed to hold limitless, fresh nightmares. The men came with their dead eyes and their tightly-pressed lips; they half-dragged, half-carried him out of his room and down to a specific chamber set aside for the day’s ordeals. And the cycle began again. And again. And again.
After enough of these, Asher realized several important things.
One: whatever purpose his captors had in store for him, it obviously required his continued good health. They clearly had no problem inflicting atrocities on him in the short-term, but nothing that the white-coated men and women did to him left any permanent damage. The liquid fire was gone from his veins in a few hours; the fingers were always carefully put back into place after enough time had passed; they allowed him enough time to catch his breath before dunking back into the ice-cold water. He couldn’t be sure, but Asher suspected that a separate team of medical professionals – or maybe even the same people who had caused the damage in the first place – slipped into his room at night to make sure that he remained healthy enough for another go-round in the torture carousel.
That didn’t tell him anything useful, but it was still something that might prove instrumental at a later time.
Two: there was no answer he could give, either to the men who held him down or the ones who did the cutting, that would end the anguish. If his captors wished for him to agree to their demands, that would have been simple enough. Asher would have cheerfully screamed any vow of loyalty they asked for until his throat bled, after even the first few cycles, when the professionals hadn’t been quite so creative with their choice of trauma. No matter what he said, though, they kept working with their scalpels, their syringes, and their tiny hammers.
If the people in charge didn’t want him to say anything, that implied they wanted him to do something, instead. What that might be eluded him, despite many cycles spent turning that problem around in his newly, oddly flexible mind.
Three: despite what he’s told the digitized voice, back in the pit…despite what he’d honestly believed to be true…Asher still had some hope. It wasn’t that he believed Devlin would find some way to infiltrate Asher’s prison and free him from his captors. That was so unlikely that it was closer to a fantasy than any real, plausible idea. But Asher still believed that when he was free – and he truly believed that a point would come when he’d endured enough suffering that the people in charge would see fit to release him back into the world – he would be able to find Devlin again. It might take some fast-talking to convince him back into the game, but the knowledge of what Asher had suffered through would likely serve as enticement.
The two of them could confer on the matter. Asher, with his gift for long-term planning, and Devlin, with his talent for spur-of-the-moment improvisation, would form a team capable of dismantling the operation. Then, Asher would be free to spend many long nights introducing his captors to the same brand of hospitality they had shown him thus far.
Thus, it was only a matter of endurance. At the beginning of each cycle, Asher reminded himself that things might get better, eventually. They would get better. He only had to hold on.
He clung to that belief, cycle after cycle, until the day when the men dragged him out of his room and led him back to the pit. Except for a primal fear that clawed up from his belly, Asher found that he looked forward to a day spent in isolation. As torture, forced solitude paled in comparison to some of the more esoteric experiences that had been inflicted on him. He was surprised when the men did not carry him all the way to the back of the pit, where the single chain and manacle lay, but instead dropped him midway between the door and the dark television screen. The men left without a word, as they always did, and Asher was alone.
He knew to expect the voice, even before it spoke. “Look.”
The television screen flickered and came to life. Asher did as he was told, moving closer to the television so that he could see what image his captors had contrived for today’s newest agony. He was surprised to discover that it was some horrible picture or video – several possibilities came to mind as soon as he considered that as a possible tactic – but was instead a fairly banal still image of some city at night, with occasional streetlamps providing dots of light on into the distance.
No…not a still image, but a video. A soft breeze carried occasional bits of trash or scraps of paper down the visible street. The resolution wasn’t good enough for Asher to actually see a printed date on any of the paper scraps, but he was able to see enough that he recognized that the language on each torn sheet was English.
“Why are you showing me this?” Asher asked. Where before his voice might have been filled with derision and sarcasm, most of that had been beaten out of him. Now, he sounded weary to his own ears. “What’s this supposed to do?”
The digitized voice did not answer, and Asher assumed that his captors wouldn’t have chosen this particular torment without a very good reason, so he fell silent and watched the screen again. It didn’t take very long before he saw what he had most likely been intended to see.
Devlin dashed into view on the screen. He was dressed in a traditional tuxedo, holding a long tube underneath his arm. It looked like the sort of canister he used to transport any genuine or counterfeit artwork that he needed to move without raising alarm. Asher hadn’t found much use for them, personally, but that had always been Devlin’s arena.
“This,” the voice said, “is the world, as it is.”
Asher sighed. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Live footage. A charity ball, infiltrated by your former friend and ex-partner, was burgled tonight.”
So, Devlin had stolen some painting from the rich and powerful. Asher smiled for the first time in what felt like forever. Of course, Devlin was still working. “Did he get one of yours?”
“No. An attempt to soothe the conscience, from one of our peers. Our assets are more secure, as you are well aware.”
“Why do you want me to care about this?” Asher asked. “Obviously, you’re doing this for a reason. What lesson am I supposed to learn?”
“From isolation, you lost hope. From torture, you gained fear. From this…”
The voice trailed off. On the screen, a second figure became visible from beyond the edge of the camera’s range. Judging from the height and the frizzy mane of brown curls, Asher guessed that it was a woman. From their body language, even considering the terrible quality of the video footage, he could see the attraction between Devlin and the unnamed newcomer. The smile on his face froze, turned brittle, and shattered into pieces in the space of only a few heartbeats.
“It was not burgled alone,” the voice said. “Devlin’s new partner, one Sarah Ford.”
Asher barely heard the words. He moved closer still to the television, until his nose tingled from the static electricity. The video didn’t have the option for sound, but when she threw her head back, Asher knew that it was from laughter. Devlin looked at her in a way that even he probably wasn’t aware of. Asher had seen it often enough, usually before his partner – his former partner – ruined a plan for some girl. Except it seemed different on the screen. Countless miles away, Asher could almost feel the difference.
“You have been replaced, Mister Knight. Just this evening, the two worked far better than you and he ever did. Imagine that: someone you thought of as a friend, whether you admit that to yourself or not, has once more betrayed you.” Pause. “At least you did not have to play the betrayer again, this time.”
A haze descended on Asher, pushing in from the edges of his vision, and cast a blood-red filter over everything he saw. The taste of copper filled his mouth and he realized, in an absent and unfocused sort of way, that he was biting fiercely into the flesh of his inner lip. While the experience wasn’t exactly comfortable, he’d grown far too familiar with pain over his time in the pit and its adjoining complex. In fact, that very familiarity – the sharp bite of incisors, the metallic blood as it flooded across his tongue and into his cheeks – brought his mind away from the edge of fury. It returned him to the pit, in the first days, when the occasional shift in the wrong direction or uncomfortable stretch had sent a twinge through the damaged nerves and muscles in his body. Without those, the darkness of the pit had been so absolute that Asher might very well have forgotten that he existed at all.
“Why are you showing me this?” Any weakness, any anger, or even the slightest hint of emotion was gone from his voice now. He heard the change and would have marveled at the subarctic chill, if he’d been in a mind to do so.
“To demonstrate the most fundamental truth, Mister Knight. Something you have learned before, but apparently forgotten.”
“And that is?”
“No one will help you. No one will save you. Your only path is to seize power where you can, to protect yourself from harm by allying yourself with those greater than you, and to be useful. Do you understand?”
And he did. Asher finally, truly did. He pushed the red haze of anger away from his mind with a brief exertion of will and forced himself to stand, facing the television with its frozen image of Devlin and his new partner. “What do you want me to do?”
“Ah,” the digitized voice said. “Now, you are ready.”
Asher didn’t move. He waited in patient silence for the voice to continue.
“We require the services of one who can move in circles too…illuminated for our direct intervention,” the voice said, after a few seconds. “One such as yourself.”
“You’ve got goons,” Asher replied. “Doctors and torturers, too. And you’re obviously capable of strategizing. What do you need from me?”
“Our goons, as you say, are assets. Meat for the machine. It is far too simple to hire men and women who will dance at our orders, shoot who we want shot, and so on. We require an active agent. Someone with initiative, creativity, intelligence. And we would have you be our right arm.”
A part of Asher’s mind considered bargaining for considerations, but the rest of him shut that idea down before it had a chance to grow any larger than a barely visible twinkle of a thought. He knew he’d take whatever his captors offered. He had nothing else in the world except for them, now. “When do I start?”
“You must be better trained. You lack the fundamentals of one who would act on our behalf. But soon, Mister Knight. Soon.”
Asher wasn’t sure how he knew the moment when the digitized voice left the room, but he felt its absence as keenly as he’d felt the darkness of the pit so many lifetimes ago. He stayed there, staring at the frozen image for three whole minutes, unmoving except for the blinking of his eyes and the steady beating of his own heart. Then, he turned back to the face the wall where he’d been chained.
Already, the illusory cards danced in front of his vision. He could see them as they formed a ground level of ideas, thoughts, suppositions, and plans that could be narrowed down until he finally reached the peak of perfection. He pruned some thoughts and encouraged others for several seconds until the door leading into the complex slid open behind him.
He didn’t resist when the men came to drag him back to his cell. In fact, he helped them, as much as his body allowed him to. The sooner he met the goals of his captors, the sooner they would release him into the world again. He was eager for that to happen.
Devlin hadn’t come. No, he’d been too busy with his new partner to look for Asher, or even to properly grieve for his alleged death. So, Asher would have to come for him.
When the door to his cell slammed shut, leaving alone in the sterile metal box, Asher allowed himself to smile again. It was the second time that expression had appeared on his face since St. Petersburg. Oh, he’d come for Devlin. And, after that? His captors would do to remember their own advice.
Seize power where you can, the digitized voice had said. And that was exactly what he intended to do.
He lay there on his tiny cot, staring up at the ceiling and smiling like a ghastly skull, as the house of cards danced and danced, until sleep and its comforting darkness finally took him.