The interrogation cell was cold. It was gloomy and miserable and a stark soulless grey. There were no windows. The walls, floor, ceiling, table and chairs were all metal.
It measured a miserable nine feet by nine, this room. It was actually no less pleasant than any other cell aboard Spearhead Five, but this one was more crowded than most and also boasted the youngest prisoner these soldiers had so far dealt with.
At this moment Captain Chet-Rimil knew the child would feel very alone. She claimed to be thirteen years old and as the truthseer did not dispute it, it must be so, but she did not look it. She was small and skeletal, hostile in her behavior, offensive and impertinent when she spoke, and clearly terrified.
It accounted for her manner and mattered not at all to the Khekarians.
The ship was high in the atmosphere above Seppa. It was a troop ship. Military. Not a Midnight but a Starkthrust, which was bigger and more menacing.
The hollow clang of distant metal reverberated through the corridors from far away, its echo coming right into the small grey room. Mij paid it no heed. It was a prison sound. Just another reminder of where she was. No direct threat.
No, the threat was already inside this cell with her. Men, all of them, more of them crowding the small room than Mij would have thought would fit. It bothered her a lot, but she always could fake courage and she thought her fear was well masked.
Three normally occupied an interrogation room, the prisoner and two examiners. She knew this, the number of chairs gave evidence to it. Two were positioned on one side of the table and one on the other. Counting herself, there were seven people here cramming this room. Mostly they lined the walls, KIAF soldiers, their hair cropped close to their skulls and their foreign eyes watchful and keen. There were a few ranks present, but she did not know what they all were. The lowest ranking, she guessed, was the equivalent of a corporal, the highest possibly a lieutenant colonel. They ranged in age from about twenty to about fifty, ages going up with rank.
She didn’t know why she was so important to them. They had what they wanted, they had their precious Prince, so why was she here?
She didn’t know how long she’d be able to keep resisting their questions. Trouble was, not cooperating was the only lever she had and she’d been using it for all it was worth.
“Please,” she said now, her head swinging again wearily, not looking at any one of them any more. Loathing them. Tired of them. “My mother went to Tavet. She saved his frigging life. She knows more than me because she spent more time with him, she will tell you everything.”
One of the Khekarian soldiers gave her a push with his foot. It couldn’t really be called a kick, the move coming in leisurely at thigh height. Nevertheless, it jarred her and was forceful enough to have toppled her and her chair had it not been bolted to the floor. The chair took the brunt of it, and Mij was not deterred at all.
“Simple questions and you cannot answer?”
“I don’t know what happened to him, okay?” she responded, louder, eyes looking towards his knees, watching for further movement. Tense for it. “I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it. Someone shot him, that’s it. Find my mother.”
“A truthseer, bitch,” he said lazily. “Don’t you know what a truthseer is?”
Her gaze jumped angrily to his face, penetrating his alien eyes with her stare. “Of course I do,” she said. “A truthseer’s a fucking Khekarian.”
A reaction began to that, a turn of his head, a smirk as he opened his mouth to retaliate, but from the opposite side of the table, Captain Chet-Rimil raised a halting hand and the soldier backed off, a sudden reluctant cease to it.
“We want to know what transpired since you found His Royal Highness,” the Captain explained. “We want to know all that he said to you. Prince Sturn has already gone to Ensceln. We need to know the answers to these questions, Mij, to fill in the gaps. You will eventually, one way or the other, tell us.”
She looked at him disdainfully. “Are you sure you’ve got the right Khekarian? Personally, I don’t believe it. He’s a smat, a dumbfuck, a prick.”
They had been talking to her in Terran, insolent enough to assume she spoke Terran and Chiddran and nothing else. One of the soldiers leaned down to the Captain and spoke in Khekarian. “Why do we not just beat her into submission? She is not respectful, the Prince cannot possibly want her for anything. Two minutes and she’ll be crying for mercy.”
“I for one do not wish to incur Imperial displeasure or retribution,” the Captain returned. “We do not know His Highness’s Whim. Pain is on the way, a subtle kind that will show no bruises.”
A nod of satisfaction at that.
Mij didn’t let on that she understood. No bruises? That meant threats. She could cope with that. Probably. She wrapped her arms tightly about her. “Find my mother. She went to Tavet.”
The Captain offered a half-smile, no heart to it. “Tavet has fallen. No one is looking for your mother.”
That’s when the rest of her hope crumbled away. Mij felt her chest hollow out and fill with pain as though her heart had been torn from her. No. It couldn’t be. She needed her mom, her mom was the only person left, that last of her family. “What do you mean?”
“All towns and houses inside the search area have been swamped and taken. All are prisoners now, Chiddran and Terran alike gone to slavery.”
“She’s my mom. He said he’d help us. He promised.”
“All taken at Tavet have already been shipped to Sillvar.”
“Sillvar? Where? Where’s is Sillvar?”
“Towards the center of the Sellenn’ir Crest. That’s an arm, a galactic arm well inside the Khekarian Expanse. You will not see her again.”
Mij felt the tears come close and looked around quickly to hide them and to distract herself. A second later, she wished she hadn’t, but it was too late. She had suddenly realized the significance of the numbers. She trembled afresh. This was the end. She’d visualized it too often and now it was about to be.
Six aside from herself. Sweet Nature’s mercy, it was going to happen now, wasn’t it? Six had been the most she had thought she could deal with… well, five at any rate. The last one lived. Always, the last one lived. And she would be put to the test, right down to the end and die in this room.
It wasn’t fair. She didn’t have her knife so she wouldn’t be able to gut any of them, but they were going to take her head off anyway.
She wanted to be brave, but the trembling wouldn’t stop.
Captain Chet-Rimil breathed a despondent sigh. Because of her link with Prince Sturn, they had been exceedingly patient with the girl. But she seemed to think that silence or denial was some sort of protection. She’d been using both.
He was getting a little angry. This lack of response on her behalf made him appear incompetent in front of superior officers. It riled him. He had reached the stage now where he sorely wanted to take her by the throat and smack her head against the wall a few times. He had not as yet done so simply because he had the disconcerting idea that it would not make one iota of difference, which would make him look even worse.
It was Lieutenant Jy’shon-Tahn therefore who would get the pleasure of harming her. He had been sent for, an embarrassing need for one so young. Still, he knew what to do and had the skill to do it. They would get their answers, the Admiral would have a full and factual report to present to Emperor Kyhlin. The report would be complete and in detail. It would have to be.
Lieutenant Jy’shon-Tahn had an almost magical touch with the difficult. He would bring forth all the information they needed. His special talent, his genius, was torture. He could make it as clean or as messy as they wanted, subtle or obscene. Either way he’d get answers. Whole and precise. That’s what he did.
“You are running out of time, Mij,” Captain Chet-Rimil warned her now.
“Why?” she asked. “I know how this works. You’re being careful with me because it’s not official yet that Prince Sturn doesn’t want me. You’re going to find out he doesn’t give a fuck. You’re going to kill me. I tell you everything and I’m no use to you anymore, you see? So I die. No matter what I say, I die afterwards.”
“There are many ways to die, very few of them pleasant and not all of them quick.”
The door rattled and clanged and opened, admitting three more men into the already crowded interrogation room. Captain Chet-Rimil, although inwardly relieved, ignored their entrance for a lengthy moment before rising and turning to one of them. “Are you ready for her, Lieutenant?”
The man addressed gave a calm smile that Mij did not see, because she had her eyes briefly closed, but heard well enough in his disturbingly composed answer.
“I am always ready.”
A nice voice. Calm deliverance. Nice tone. She blinked and looked at him.
Something wasn’t right. Mij wasn’t sure they had done it, no one actually moved, but he seemed to have more space around him than anyone else in this crowded room.
He took the now vacant chair, placing a flat metal case on the table. He did not open it.
Mij studied him. He was nice enough to look at. For a Khekarian. Younger than the Captain, and with much more hair as though he was not a typical KIAF officer, as though he somehow ranked more highly than anyone else. The orange in his eyes was more pronounced, too, and Mij knew that under different lighting those specks of color would look almost gold.
The trace of a smile smoothed out into nothingness when he turned his gaze to her. He did not speak. He reached up a hand without looking away from the prisoner and had delivered into it a thin file that contained the girl’s particulars.
He opened it and only then did his gaze fall to its pages.
He placed it flat on the closed case and read carefully. Taking his time. Taking in, without reaction, every word so far recorded on the child. They didn’t have much. Where she was located, what they found there and who, of course, was with her.
Nevertheless he took such a time over the file that Mij sat up a bit, not comfortable slouching with this man, not knowing why. She felt a sudden need to go to the bathroom.
When he was at last through with the report, he stared for so long at her that it became unnerving. Mij found after a while she couldn’t look at him at all.
“I want to know what happened down there.” He spoke simply when at last he opened his mouth. “And you will tell me. You will give me a long history, Mij. It will have everything in it, your thoughts and your deeds.”
Threats, yes, Mij thought, fidgeting. He hadn’t moved a muscle, yet she was twitching and nervous and couldn’t control any of it. Her foot tapped, her knee jiggled and she swallowed a lot. She didn’t know who he was, but he was different and more frightening than anyone else in the room.
“I’m looking for my mother,” she explained, trying to sound in control of herself. In reality she was very close to tears or hysteria. Or wetting herself. “She went to Tavet and is now captured. This isn’t fun, you know.”
“No, it’s not,” he said in quiet reply. And was silent again for a very long time. Staring.
Mij looked at her hands in her lap. Her fingers were entwined nervously, tightly, her grip straining muscles and joints. She couldn’t stop that either.
“Did Sturn talk to you about what happened? Did he tell you things?”
Mij glanced and said nothing. She bowed her head again. She couldn’t cheek him. Not him. He was so cold, so icy calm, she could feel in her bones already what he might be capable of. It might not be just threats. It was occurring to her that there were all sorts of things he – they – could do that would not leave bruises.
“May I go to the bathroom?” she asked.
“What things did he tell you?”
Another lengthy wait.
If she could help it, Mij wasn’t going to talk. She couldn’t afford to. If she spoke, they’d have no reason to look for her mother.
“She went to Tavet,” she said again, her voice tiny. Not quite surrendering.
Jy’shon-Tahn now calmly closed and put the file aside, exposing the metal case.
She looked at it. Trembling still.
As quietly and smoothly as all his movements seemed to be, he flipped the catches and with ease opened the case wide, revealing it’s contents to her, an interesting if foreign array of implements. Some looked surgical. Long thin knives, strangely shaped tools. There were all sorts of things there. Foreign, frightening things, each neatly in its own place carved into soft foam backing. Three trays of them.
Mij swallowed once more and straightened the rest of the way, her spine pushing hard as though to fuse with the back of the chair. She knew now what was going on. Now she knew what he was.
No bruises? No bruises didn’t mean no pain! He was going to torture her!
She choked, tears bubbling up inside, blurring her vision, hurting her throat. She blinked rapidly, wiped her eyes with a trembling hand. She couldn’t give in to her tears, she had to see, she had to keep control of herself or she wouldn’t know what they were going to do.
Jy’shon-Tahn made his choices quietly, setting those few one at a time onto the table. Brightly polished instruments shining on grey metal.
Mij stared in horror at the tools. Then her gaze went back to the man himself.
He did not look at her now, his attention fully on the task of arranging his equipment so exactly. He closed his case then, latched it silently and with careful patience, put it out of his way.
And looked at her.
Another long stillness followed.
Mij had to bow her head and keep it down, frightened she would start screaming. Not knowing if he would speak next or use something on her.
She wanted to talk. She wanted so badly to tell them everything, but if she did that… If she talked, she’d never see her mother again. Ever. It was up to her, she was the only one who could make them bring her mother back, but she didn’t know how anymore.
She flinched noticeably when he moved.
He had picked up something long and sharp. Thin. Looked similar to a knitting needle, only longer and somehow meaner. He eyed it, admiring it. Deliberately then he turned his gaze to her, and spoke in his slow and easy manner. Almost friendly with her.
“Let me tell you of my vocation, Mij. I get answers. I’m very good at getting answers because I like what I do. Sometimes it takes a lot of time to get the answers I want. However I’m a very patient man. I use tools. This one for example.” A pause, eyes smiling. The first smile in her direction. “This is one of my favorites. Let me explain its function, I’m sure you’ll find it fascinating.”
Mij didn’t think she wanted to know. She shivered and hugged her arms, shrinking almost visibly in her chair.
“It’s used on the brain.”
The inflection here was not particularly menacing, his gaze was on the tool almost lovingly, and he spoke as though showing her a collection of baubles. Proud of what he had.
“It is painful. Reasonably so, but not overly. You won’t lose consciousness. There’s not even a great amount of blood. It’s inserted through the nasal passage. Up the nose.”
She was captivated now, her gaze flitting in terror from the instrument to lock with his eyes, only to tear from their grip and take in the instrument once more. He was holding it in one hand now, his fingers curled into a fist around it.
“It needs the right angle, with the right pressure behind it.”
Abruptly he smacked the end of it with his free hand and punched it through his grip almost the full length. Mij jumped violently, it had startled her, the swiftness of the act terrifying. He was demonstrating the pressure and speed necessary and she could visualize it – feel it almost – slamming straight into her brain.
His voice remained calm.
“The brain itself, its tissue, does not register pain, but you’ll experience the puncture of bone as the probe penetrates the skull chamber. Hear it, too, like the crack of an egg.”
Oh God, did he have to say that? Mij wanted to close her eyes again but didn’t dare.
“The target is the deeper, innermost brain. That’s all we do with it, but it’s surprising and fascinating what you will experience after that. You’ll feel the same shock, the same sensation as the rod is pulled free again from bone.”
A pause. A smile.
“And there your memories halt in a special, completely enthralling way. You’ll retain everything, you see, all your past right up to the moment we remove this. And that’s all you’re left with. Nothing more. Ten, twenty, even sixty years from now you’ll retain nothing after this room. After me. In effect, you’re losing your future.”
He paused. Tilted his head. Watched as Mij swallowed some more. She was trembling violently, and was willing to talk, she just didn’t know how to start. When it came, there would be a flood of words.
His gaze travelled to the two men who had accompanied him and who had positioned themselves behind her. He took in one then the other, eyes only moving. And he gave a quiet nod.
Only one took her. He came from behind her chair, throwing an arm about her left arm and in front of her shoulders, pulling her violently back against the spine of the chair as she reacted to him, his other hand quickly gripping her right wrist, folding her hand down out of the way, behind her back, behind her chair.
She struggled with him in a sudden frenzy of fear, screamed a short, “No!” Then pushed her foot against the edge of the table and tried to push against it as though to break the bolts holding it all in place.
She twisted, fighting strenuously, but could no more than squirm. At last, defeated, exhausted, straining and breathing hard, she looked again at the torturer.
He had not moved. He simply watched.
“Why do you need me to say it?” she cried, her voice at last breaking. “You don’t need me to say it! To say anything, you know it all! Someone shot him! That’s all I know.”
“Lie.” That bastard word softly delivered from someone else.
“Your future, Mij. That’s a lot to lose for the little we want from you. And you’ll still have the knowledge, of course, because it’s in your past, so we’ll use other things should this one fail. But this tool is not always so exact. I’ve known other results. Messy results. Fatal results.”
“Then you can’t. You can’t. He… he might want me, none of us know, right? And he promised me, he promised.”
“And accidents happen. For that reason, we might save this one until the last. Then, if all goes well and you survive, you’ll have an assortment of experiences to remember me by. The last experiences you’ll ever fully know. All of it, forever, seeming as fresh as this moment.”
“Bastard!” And the tears came, and the snot, and the agony of grief. “Someone wanted to kill him! Okay? That’s it! We didn’t know he was frigging royalty. His Excellency. Whatever.”
“As a member of the Royal Family, he is His Highness. He is higher than an Excellency.”
Mij was already slipping into panic. “He is not, he’s a fucking prick!”
“The Son’s Whim?” someone muttered behind her, again in Khekarian. “Wasted on this one? Are you sure?”
No one answered him but Mij struggled again, straining to see who had spoken. Only able to twist so far. She abused him anyway in his mother tongue.
“Ah!” Genuine surprise and a smile from the torturer. He looked at his fellow officers. “She speaks our language. We have done well, we’ve learnt more here than we intended.”
Then back to the girl. She was looking at him again, breathing hard. Deadly frightened.
“From the beginning, Mij. Tell me what took place on Seppa.”
“We looked after him, you know? We saved his miserable life. The bastard. My mom gave him healing, she gave him energy, food, shelter.”
“What did he tell you about events prior to meeting you?”
“Some Terran group. Someone he knew before.”
“I don’t know any names.”
That man across the room spoke again in Khekarian. “Lie.”
“Names,” Jy’shon-Tahn repeated. Not angry, but his very patience with her was menacing. Mij knew she had lost. Everything. Her mother.
“They’re from Zumadiddy in the Terran Sector.”
The Captain corrected her quietly, speaking to Jy’shon-Tahn. “Zumaridi. That’s where Prince Sturn came in from.”
“They came with Chiddran help, I don’t know who, but Sturn was sure they had help.”
“Raoul. Jackie. That’s all I know, I swear.”