Category Archives: From The Ashes

Third Sighting

“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 montecrist00@hotmail.com, 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 KnightJust 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.

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Second Sighting

“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?”

Yes.

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.

First Sighting

“On September 18th 2009, the suspect Asher Knight (also known as William Chess, Charles Bishop, and Richard Jameson, among other aliases) was seen in the vicinity of Vasilevsky Island. Local authorities moved in to arrest the suspect, but lost him in the southern district.  Attempts were made to reestablish contact, but officers were diverted by a large explosion near the area twenty minutes later.  Emergency services managed to contain the fire, although severe damage was done to several historic buildings before the situation was handled.  By the time law enforcement was able to enter the area again, the suspect was nowhere to be found.”

~From Police Private Pyotr Drugov, translated into English.  Filed on September 19th, 2009 in the Vasileostrovsky District Station

 

It wasn’t that the burns on Asher’s arms, face, and upper chest hurt.  The fact that they didn’t hurt was what concerned him.  He knew very little about medicine – no real profit in that knowledge, unless you counted the occasional sale of pharmaceutical goods to interested parties – but he’d seen a documentary once about burn victims.  There was a misconception that third degree burns, in keeping with the raw damage they inflected to skin and muscle, caused an impossible amount of pain.  According to the documentary, that simply wasn’t true.  It was possible, in certain cases, that enough damage could be caused that the nerves themselves would sizzle and die, leaving the victim to feel nothing at all from that region.

Asher felt nothing at all.  He was glad that there wasn’t any pain interfering with his ability to think, even as he was horrified to contemplate what that lack of sensation might actually mean for him in the future.

He tried to get his bearings, but the absolute blackness pressing in on him from all sides made that impossible.  Instead, he turned to his thoughts and traced back through his memories for the third time since he’d dragged himself back to consciousness.

He remembered changing the plan, at the last instant.  Devlin had been in place, ready to steal the Faberge egg while the police were busy dealing with a visible, though ultimately harmless, fire.  Asher’s sources had informed him that his actual target, a stately and fairly typical mansion in the area, was uninhabited.  Without letting his partner know, Asher had doubled the explosives.  He had thought to slip away from his lookout spot while Devlin was busy lifting the goods, acquire some of the information he’d been seeking for the last year or so, and leave without tipping anybody off.  He’d planned on informing Devlin when there was actually something to talk about, after all.  Honestly.

Things had gone wrong, then.  The targeted explosion had worked as planned; what hadn’t been expected was the synchronous explosion in Asher’s own hiding place.  After wasting precious seconds in stunned bewilderment, Asher had managed to make it down from the third floor lookout and nearly reached the streets before a flaming support beam fell from the sky and crushed Asher, breaking bone and singing flesh the whole way.  There had been pain, then, as flames spilled over his body like a tidal wave of liquid agony.  He had only endured a few seconds of that before, mercifully, his mind had simply gone blank and unconsciousness came to save his sanity.

Then, an unknowable amount of time later, he’d woken up here.  Wherever here was.  He couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear or smell anything.  All Asher knew was that he was alone, he was suffering grievous injuries, and that his good hand was chained to a wall behind him.  His fingers traced along the cuff, back down the length of chain, and touched stone at the end of the line.  Aside from that single tactile snippet of information, Asher Knight knew nothing at all about his predicament.

“I hope you’re enjoying the show!”  Asher’s voice came back to him almost immediately, from every possible angle except from above.  He guessed that he was in some sort of room, identical on all sides, without a ceiling.  A box, perhaps, or some sort of pit.  A well, maybe?  He added that bit of information to his small mental list.

“I’m guessing you’re the people I’ve been looking for, huh?  So, does this mean you aren’t happy about what I did to your mansion?”

No answer.  Asher hadn’t really expected one, but that wasn’t why he was talking.  Put simply, the silence was getting to him.  He had no way of knowing how long he’d been knocked out or even how long he’d been awake.  Except for his words and his heartbeat, it was like the world had come to an end.  Even the occasional drip as his own blood fell to the ground was muffled.

“Well, I’ve got to say that I’m not enjoying your hospitality so far,” Asher continued.  “If what I’ve been hearing is correct, you’ve got to have something a little more welcoming for your guests.  Unless you treat all of your guests like this…but I guess you don’t have all that many social callers, do you?”

Still, nothing.  Asher shifted his weight, careful not to bump the dead flesh on his arms against any unseen obstacles and to keep his shirt from brushing against the burned skin on his chest.  He thought for several seconds – at least, it seemed like several seconds, but there wasn’t any way for him to know – about his next words.  Those thoughts took the form of questions.

Question: Why would his targets have captured him alive?  If he or she or they wanted to keep their identity secret, it would have been simple to leave him trapped underneath the burning support beam.  In fact, it would have been almost too easy to rig the entire outpost to explode, simply burying Asher and all of his inquisitiveness in one fell swoop.

Answer: Asher’s death hadn’t been the point, or the goal.  For whatever reason they wanted him alive and they wanted a suitable distraction while they took him.

Question: Why bother with a trap, then?  Asher and Devlin took commissions.  It wasn’t difficult to contact them through the underworld, so long as you knew the right contacts.  Or, if they wanted to…procure his services without paying, it wouldn’t have been very difficult to black-bag him off the street one day.  He wasn’t like Devlin, who insisted on doing good deeds out of some inexplicable desire to ‘be a good person.’  Asher lived in the underworld.  He ate, slept, and breathed it in.

Answer: They didn’t want Devlin and they didn’t want him to know Asher had been taken.  They wanted it to look like he had died.

“Is that it?” He asked out loud.  A moment later, he realized that he hadn’t been speaking out loud before.  Those were just his thoughts, internal and unknowable.  How had he made that mistake?  “You wanted me by myself, so you set this little trap to catch me?  Well, shame that I went and got myself so damn wounded, isn’t it?  You’ll have to either let me out or let me die; either way, you might have overplayed your hand, eh?”

No,” a digitized voice said.  “We haven’t.”

At first, Asher thought that his mind had somehow imagined the voice.  He used his good hand to feel along the wall, slumping against it when he felt comfortable that he knew his general shape, and sighed.

Asher Knight,” the voice said.  “We believe you to be a singularly rare individual.

He blinked, although there wasn’t any difference between the darkness of the room and the darkness of his own eyelids, and sat upright.  “Who’s there?”

Parties interested in your abilities,” the voice said.  “Individuals with power and influence, who seek to use your skills to their own ends.

Asher laughed.  The sound came up from him, completely out of nowhere, and its volume grew until the small pit was filled with it.  “You want to hire me?” He managed to gasp out, between laughs.  “That’s what this is about?”

Of course notWe are capable of hiring whomever we please.  We wish to…utilize you.”

The word choice sent a wave of chills down Asher’s arms.  He felt the hairs rise right up until they reached the elbows.  After that, the feeling stopped dead.

He quickly catalogued the question she’d come up with and discarded half of them without a second thought.  Information was important.  So long as his captors were talking, Asher might be able to pull some tidbit of knowledge from what they chose or did not choose to say.

“What do you mean, ‘you haven’t?’  You haven’t what?”

Overplayed our hand.  You will not die.  Your injuries are terrible, but they will not cause sufficient damage to limit your function.”

“Without surgery?  Whoever you are, you’ve got a highly overrated sense of my invincibility.”

The digitized voice chuckled.  It seemed as though there was more than one voice in that sound, each laugh providing an eerie counterpoint to the others.  “We do not need your body, Asher Knight.  It is your mind we require.  We have worked from the shadows for decades and none living have ever heard more than the barest whisper of our presence.  And yet, you have managed to uncover more than we thought possible.  We would have the mind capable of that, and we would have it our disposal.”

Asher had never been so displeased to be correct in his entire life.  He’d heard the stories, of course; everyone in the underworld had a ghost story or two when it came to the illusive string-pullers and deal-makers who ran things from their crystal tower on high.  He and Devlin operated at a tier above the average thugs, who spent their time breaking into gas stations and liquor stores for rent money; appropriately, there were always tales about criminals who had managed such staggering successes that they could effectively go legit.  They invested, financed, and profited from activities that took place both in the light of day and the shadows of night.

Of these figures, there was always one group that pickpockets, cat burglars, and conmen alike never spoke directly about.  Sometimes, there was only one person at the helm of an international organization; sometimes, it was a family operation; sometimes, it was as many as twelve, forming an Illuminati-like council that orchestrated what crimes happened to what people and at what time.  There hadn’t been any solid information to uncover, Asher discovered, because there was no solid information to be had.  Whoever they were, and however many of them existed, no one knew more than one solitary, simple fact: it was best to look away, to keep quiet, and to do your absolute best to avoid notice, lest one of the ruling elite take an interest in your activities.

Asher had been fascinated with the story and, while working on an impressive string of heists with his partner, begun to compile the stories into a single, more-or-less cohesive whole.  The work had been harder than anything he’d done before.  There were more theories about them – where they were based, how they operated, how much power and capital they actually wielded – than facts, but his curious mind had found a way to piece something workable together.  A sale of modified assault rifles here, cross-referenced with the announcement of a highly profitable HIV treatment there, contrasted with an oil spill in this body of water…and so on, and so on.  Over time, he had started to see the shape of things, even if the vast majority of events eluded him.  That general impression had led him to St. Petersburg, to the unassuming mansion where he had thought one of the ruling elite might be headquartered.  The Faberge egg next door had only been a useful cover to entice Devlin to come along.

And Asher had been right.  Amazingly, disastrously, he had been right.

“You think I’m just going to do whatever you want?” Asher asked, out loud.  At least, he thought it was out loud.  “Why, exactly, would I do that?”

We can be very persuasive.”

“Torture?”  Asher barked out another sharp laugh.  “I’ve been dealing with threats like those since I was ten.  I’d die before I gave up.  Especially, now that I know you people actually exist!”

Torture?”  The digitized, multi-part laugh came again.  “Why would we do that?  We will simply allow you time to…truly consider your options.

“I don’t think I’ll be spending too much time thinking it over,” Asher said.  “I can’t have been unconscious long enough for you to get me out of Russia.  Probably not even out of St. Petersburg.  If I had to guess, if you set up this trap just for me, you would’ve built some sort of tunnel connecting to the mansion I blew up.  Hope that wasn’t too expensive, by the way.  Am I right so far?”

Silence.

Asher wasn’t sure if that was because he’d guessed correctly or if the digitized speaker had simply left, but he chose to err on the side of optimism and continued.  “If you didn’t have the good sense to move me as far away from this neighborhood as possible, then you might as well pack it in, boys.  My partner is…well, he isn’t the brightest son of a bitch, but he is the most determined person you’re ever going to have the displeasure of going up against.  And he will move heaven and earth to get me back if he even suspects that something might have happened.”

As he spoke the words, Asher was somewhat surprised to find that he actually believed them.  It was common knowledge in the underworld: if you took a job with Devlin O’Brien, he would take that temporary partnership as seriously as if you’d sworn a blood oath.  He absolutely would not betray any of his teammates, even when clinging to his childlike sense of loyalty made things worse for him.  That was how he acted with one-offs.  Asher and Devlin had been working together for years now and they made an exemplary team.  In fact, Asher might almost consider the man…

Well, not a friend.  Asher didn’t make friends.  Connections like that turned poisonous, given enough time.  It had happened too many times in the past for any reasonable person to ignore.  But Asher liked Devlin.  He would consider him an acquaintance whose company he did not totally detest.  That was ll.  Of course.

He shook his head violently.  His mind had started to wander there.  He asked himself, for the fourth time, how long he’d been in this pit.  How long, Asher wondered, before Devlin came to retrieve him?

Your partner,” the digitized voice said, “is not coming.  As of this moment, he is working through back channels in search of a passport that will get him out of the country.  Your firestorm has caused quite the stir in the local police and the Russians are not known for their kindness to strangers, terrorists, or criminals.”

“Devlin didn’t leave,” Asher said, without sparing an instant to think about the sentence before it passed his lips.  “He wouldn’t do that.  If I’m here, he’s coming for me.  And if he’s coming for me…”  He whistled.  The note cracked and died in the still air.  “You have sowed the whirlwind, pal.  Trust me on that.”

He is not coming,” the voice repeated.  “No one is comingYou are alone, Asher Knight, and you will eventually come to understand that.  You.  Are.  Ours.”

“What do you even want with me?”  Asher was mortified to hear the pleading, sour note in his own voice, but it came out all the same.

You have proven skilled in certain areas.  Identification, pattern recognition, and lateral thinking.  We would have you turn those skills onto another.”

“Who?”

Silence.  Then, “We will speak laterEnjoy this opportunity to reflect.”

“Wait!” Asher waited, but no answer came back from the digitized voice.  “I want answers!”  Still, nothing.

So, isolation.  Asher would almost have preferred physical torture.  It wasn’t as though the nerves on his arms would report any further damage done to them.  But mental torture was…in a word, terrifying.  Everything that could be taken from him was taken him from in his childhood: his home, his parents, his pride.  Everything except his mind.  That was his, and his alone.  These tactic threatened to strip away even that final stronghold; it threatened to take away his personality.

He’d only been alone for seconds – had it only been seconds? – when he felt the pressure of the darkness against his skin again.  He shrunk into himself on instinct, reverting to the fetal position he’d used to avoid so many beatings before he came of age.  It had been years since he’d felt genuine fear and the reaction of his youth came to him.

“Devlin’s coming,” he whispered to himself, wincing as his teeth nipped at the soft flesh of his inner lip.  “Devlin’s coming.”

The salty taste of blood filled his mouth as he waited, alone, in the darkness.