TimeBomb: Introducing Quil
By Scott K. Andrews
Posted on October 10, 2014 in Books with tags Extract, Scott K. Andrews
Government Black Site, 2257
‘You are not a very good interrogator.’ The woman leaned back in her chair, a half-smile dancing on her lips.
The interrogator, sitting across the table from her, said nothing. The woman studied him. About forty-five, she thought. Sagging chin, slight bulge at the waist, thinning hair. He wore a wedding ring, so somebody found him attractive. Or did once, anyway. His skin was pallid and grey, his teeth off-brown. He wore no uniform, preferring an anonymous grey suit, white shirt, blue tie combo that completed the picture of a man who was in every sense middling; middle-aged, middle-rank, middle-England. A functionary, a bureaucrat.
His small grey eyes, though, told a different story. They lacked all pity. He looked at her as if she were a specimen beneath a microscope. The woman harboured no illusions. The interrogator’s appearance was a façade, part of his act.
‘I think,’ she said, pursing her lips and considering him with exaggerated care, ‘that you were the kind of boy who liked pulling the wings off flies. Burnt ants with a magnifying glass. Maybe graduated to cats and dogs. Lots of pets go missing in your neighbourhood when you were young, did they?’
The interrogator stifled a yawn.
‘Oh,’ said the woman. ‘Am I being predictable?’
The interrogator inclined his head slightly as if to say ‘sort of’.
‘Sorry. I’ll try harder.’
The interrogator widened his eyes as if to say ‘go on, then, surprise me’.
‘Really? Is this the act? Sit there and let me talk? A bit of body language – that’s your big play?’
The interrogator gave an almost imperceptible shrug.
The woman shook her head. ‘I think I’d almost prefer the mind probe.’
The interrogator smiled and shook his head.
The woman cursed inwardly. He knew about her defences. Someone had betrayed her. She’d known that already, of course. She wouldn’t be stuck in this anonymous room, buried deep within a top-secret high-security building in an out-of-the-way part of an insignificant country, if she hadn’t been betrayed.
She’d known there was a chance of capture. It was an outside chance, certainly; unlikely without inside help. But the possibility had always been there. So she had taken steps. There was a device implanted deep within her brain. Tiny, barely detectable even with the strongest scans. Booby-trapped, impossible to remove. If anybody subjected her to a mind probe it would heat instantly, boiling her brain inside her skull. Keeping her secrets safe.
Whoever had betrayed her had known about it, tipped them off. That narrowed the list of possible suspects.
Not that that did her any good. Yet. She’d have to escape and rejoin her forces before she could ferret out the traitor. And right now she had no idea how she was going to do that. They would mount a rescue attempt, she was sure of that. All she could do was play for time. Which brought everything to a very simple point – she had to endure interrogation for as long as possible.
Looking into the cruel eyes of the man sitting across from her, she didn’t fancy her chances.
‘You have been betrayed,’ he said. His voice was thin and high. Punctilious.
‘I wonder, do you know who betrayed you?’
‘I could hazard a guess.’
‘I don’t think you could.’
The woman shrugged. ‘It’s academic anyway.’
‘Far from it. But we can shelve that for now. I have been given a list of questions. I am not to leave this room until I have answers to each and every one of them.’
‘Then you’ll die here.’
He actually seemed amused by her defiance. ‘Oh, very good,’ he said, smiling.
‘You have two options,’ said the woman briskly, leaning forward, folding her hands before her on the table. ‘You can torture me until I break.’
‘Not my preferred choice, but it’s on the table.’
‘I’m not an idiot. I know I would break. Everyone does, eventually.’
The man nodded once. ‘In my experience.’
‘So then it becomes a race. Can you break me before my forces track me down, storm this building, and slaughter every last one of you?’
‘Nobody is coming to rescue you.’
His calm certainty was chilling, but she refused to let her discomfiture show.
‘Your other option is leverage,’ she said.
‘A subtler approach. More reliable, I find.’
‘Which raises the question – what leverage do you think you can you bring to bear on me?’
The interrogator held his hands out wide as if to say ‘what do you think?’
‘I have no children,’ said the woman. ‘No husband or lover. No family at all. Your armies are on the run, so you can’t threaten to strike at my home. It’s too well defended. You don’t have a thing on me.’
The interrogator smiled. She really wished he’d stop doing that. ‘You’d be surprised how left-field a person’s weakness can be. I once broke a man by threatening to have his favourite singer killed. He’d never met her, didn’t know her at all. She was just a face on a screen. But he worshipped her. His apartment was practically a shrine to her. Spilled his guts the second I slapped her photo on the table.’
‘I never was a big music fan.’
‘No, you didn’t strike me as the type.’
‘So you are sure we can have nothing,’ said the interrogator. ‘No leverage at all. You’ve dedicated yourself so completely to the cause that there is nothing and no one you give a damn about. No one and nothing for us to threaten.’
The woman sat back in the chair and folded her arms, triumphant.
‘If that were true, it would be a pyrrhic victory, don’t you think?’ he said. ‘What would you do if you won? What would be left for you? Who would you go home to when you’ve burnt down the capitol and stuck the president’s head on a spike? Who would you celebrate with? Your generals? Oh, they follow your orders, but I don’t think they like you very much.’
‘I’m not important,’ said the woman firmly. ‘Never have been.’
‘It’s all about the cause?’
‘It’s all about the cause.’
The interrogator smiled and shook his head. ‘You are good. The best, I think, that has ever sat across the table from me. Your control is admirable. Uncanny. Even among the Godless, you are uniquely adept.’
The woman winced inwardly at his use of that word, but she knew it had been said for effect and did not reward him with a reaction.
‘If I did not have the evidence that you were lying,’ he continued, ‘I would swear that you were telling the truth.’
‘There is no evidence,’ she replied. ‘I’m not lying.’
The interrogator nodded slowly. ‘So how do you explain this?’
He clicked his fingers and a holo-screen flickered into life above the table between them. It took a moment for her to focus on the picture that floated before her, and when she had worked out what she was looking at her only response was confusion.
‘What’s that?’ she asked, looking through the image to the interrogator who sat beyond it.
The interrogator’s eyes narrowed. He seemed genuinely perplexed.
‘You know exactly what it is,’ he said. But he was good at his job, and he had read her reaction perfectly. He could see her confusion was genuine.
She refocused on the picture. It seemed to show her sitting at a café table, holding hands with a man she had never seen before.
‘Sorry,’ she said, shrugging. ‘Not a clue. Wherever, whenever this was taken, I wasn’t there. That’s not me.’
‘I suppose you weren’t here either?’
The picture changed. Now it showed her and the mystery man walking by a river, again hand in hand. She could see the cathedral Notre Dame in the background. Paris.
A picture of her kissing the man in the lobby of a hotel.
A picture of a far more intimate nature, taken in a hotel room.
The woman could make no sense of what she was seeing. The interrogator clearly thought these pictures were genuine. He thought he’d found out her big secret, a lover. But she knew they were fake. She had no lover. The man in the photos was a stranger. He wasn’t even her type. Did she even still have a type? It had been so long since she’d allowed herself any kind of personal connection, she was no longer sure.
Which raised the question – where had these pictures come from?
A sudden, shocking possibility occurred to her. Her mind raced as she calculated the odds, explored the possible ramifications. After a few seconds she laughed.
The interrogator did not like that at all.
‘What is so amusing?’ he snapped.
‘You think that’s me.’
‘We took DNA from the bedsheets. Conclusive.’
‘Unless she’s another Godless.’ She emphasised the word, allowing a momentary flash of disdain to show.
The interrogator shook his head. ‘No. The mark-up was yours. It’s you.’
‘Then I win,’ she said.
‘I win,’ she said again.
‘I do not understand.’
‘No, of course you don’t. But OK, let’s say I believe you. Let’s say you did take these photos, and the tests were right. It was me with this man doing … that stuff.’
‘We did. It was.’
‘And do you have him in custody? Are you going to wheel him in here and hold a gun to his head until I answer all your questions?’
The interrogator shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
‘Ah, I see. You thought that I would lose my nerve when I saw these pictures. Thought I would be so desperate to protect him that I’d spill my guts. But you don’t know who he is, do you? You tested his DNA and it came up blank. He’s not on the system. Thought you’d give it a shot with me, anyway. But I don’t know who he is. You see, I haven’t met him yet.’
‘Your tests were probably right. That probably is me in the picture with whoever that man is. But not yet. You’re showing me my future. And if my future involves long romantic walks in Paris, well then. I win. This war. This struggle. I win.’
‘These photos were taken weeks ago.’
The woman shrugged, but kept smiling. ‘I believe you. But it hasn’t happened for me yet.’
The interrogator was genuinely flustered now. The woman could see this was not something he was accustomed to.
‘So, let me get this straight,’ he said. ‘You’re saying … what? That at some point in the future you will travel back in time?’
‘Looks that way from where I’m sitting.’
‘That is your explanation? Time travel?’
‘Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.’
He was interrupted by a frantic knocking. The interrogator leaped out of his seat and hurried to open the door.
The woman could not see who had knocked on the door, but she did see the point of a sword burst from the interrogator’s back, hear the sigh as his last breath left him, see the sword retract through his torso, see his lifeless body topple sideways to the floor.
For a long, stunned moment she stared into the eyes of the person with the sword who stood in the doorway. And the eyes were all she could see, for above the black clothing was a balaclava with a single slit for the eyes.
The woman rose to her feet. ‘Who are you, and how do we get out of here?’
The black-clad figure stepped into the room and then to one side. Five people, all dressed the same as the first, hurried in. Once they were all inside, one of them bolted the door. Another overturned the table to clear the centre space. Ignoring the woman, four of the newcomers ran to the four corners of the room. Each laid a small grey disc on the floor and then ran back to the centre of the room. All six of them formed a circle around the woman, joining hands to enclose her in a protective ring.
‘We’ve not left enough time,’ muttered one of them, female by her voice.
‘Of course we—’
The charges went off and the floor dropped away beneath them.
They fell a short distance and landed flat inside a dark echoing space. The woman’s ears rang, her eardrums stunned by the force of the explosion.
She heard a faint muffled cry of ‘Scatter’ from one of her rescuers, and she was dragged away from the wrecked floor. She looked up and saw a square of light above her; the room they had just blown their way out of.
Another of the team, a man, yelled something as he crouched in the middle of the recently fallen floor. The woman thought she made out the word ‘quantum’, but that was all. He had a piece of apparatus in his hands; a tangle of metal and wires that looked like nothing the woman had ever seen.
The persistent ringing of a distant alarm began to penetrate her blast-deafness. The woman supposed that was coming from the room above, as the people in the facility realised they had been infiltrated.
There was a brilliant flash of light from the centre of the dark space and an image of a massive room with doors leading off in many directions seared itself onto her retina before the flash faded to be replaced by a steady glow from the apparatus.
The hands that had dragged her clear of the rubble now spun her, and the woman found herself face to face with one of her rescuers; the one with the sword.
‘Who are you?’ she shouted.
Her rescuer pulled the balaclava off, held the woman’s head firmly between their hands, stared into her eyes and mumbled something she couldn’t quite make out above the sirens and the fading ring of the explosion in her ears.
Then everything went horribly wrong.
The woman had been in combat before. She had been blown across rooms by explosions, felt bullets and laser beams fly past her, had been in situations where it seemed every second could be her last. She was accustomed to the sensation of time slowing down, of seconds elongating endlessly as the moment of crisis approaches.
But this felt nothing like that.
This felt as if time was literally slowing down. And only for her.
The six rescuers stood frozen like statues as the woman surveyed the scene before her.
The wreckage of the interrogation room floor lying in a square of light cast from above.
The body of the interrogator, broken and bloodied, sprawled half on the floor of the room he had died in, half on the floor that lay beneath it.
The strange apparatus that glowed, and the bubble of coruscating light that was expanding from it so very slowly, swallowing up the rescuers one by one.
The face of the mysterious person in black.
The shadowed outline of the huge subterranean room they now stood in the centre of.
And then a slow, deep rumble from above. The woman looked up and saw, to her complete horror, the ceiling of the interrogation room begin to split apart in a slow billowing cloud of concrete dust. She thought she glimpsed, within the chaos of debris, a shiny metal point descending towards them. To the woman, in her crazy slowed-down state, it seemed as if a missile was gently pushing its way through the solid building.
It was directly above her. In less that a second it would smash into them, obliterating them entirely. She knew what it was and she screamed inwardly at the scale of the betrayal the missile represented.
The edge of the bubble of light had reached her. All the others were now ensconced within it.
She turned and moved towards them, entering the light, presuming that it offered some kind of protection, that this apparatus was part of a complex rescue plan and the light represented a shield to protect them from the fate that literally hung over them.
The woman was halfway into the bubble, the line that marked its limit bisecting her lengthways, when time resumed its normal speed.
The missile smashed into her.
But instead of oblivion, silence, death, there was instead a violent flash of red and then …
… she was staring into her own face, a shimmering curtain of light between herself and herself. She reached up a hand to touch her mirror image’s face and then …
She felt bones breaking as she crashed into a hard black surface. She looked up, eyes wide, breath coming in sharp, ragged gasps, at the massive wheeled vehicle that bore down on her. She raised her unbroken arm to her face and screamed and then …
Hitting wood this time, on the same side of her body that had borne the brunt of the previous fall, grinding already broken bones, splintering some that had escaped the last impact. She cried out, pushing against the wooden floor with her one good hand. She looked up again, feeling splinters in her fingers, the roll and swell of the deck beneath her feet, seeing the white of billowing sails above her head and the bright blue sky beyond. She heard a cry of alarm, but could not tell where it came from. Had someone called her name? She smelt smoke, pungent and acrid. She took another breath and her lungs filled with it, choking. She coughed violently, each cough causing her broken bones to scrape together, agonisingly. She rolled with the pitch of the deck. She tried to turn her head to see, but as she did so a terrible pain shot through her neck and she felt herself passing out, but before she did there was a tremendous explosion, flames engulfed her, she screamed but could make no sound, and then …
Total darkness. Complete silence. Hard rock beneath her, smooth and even, slimy and wet. Had she been unconscious? She could not say. Every part of her hurt. Her skin, her lungs, her head, her bones.
‘Hello?’ Her voice was a pitiful screech.
She jolted. Had she been asleep? Unconscious again? She did not know, she could not tell. With no light or sound to judge the passing of time, she was cut adrift from it. From herself. She did not know how long she lay there. Every now and then she would shake, but did those moments mark her waking or her sleeping? Did they signify that she was drifting in and out of consciousness?
Her thoughts were disjointed and fractured. Betrayal. Destruction. Failed rescue. Her own face, and that of another, framed in black. A name. A picture of a man she did not know, but who looked at her with a lover’s fondness. A weapon. Vengeance. The supercilious smile of a grey man in a grey suit. Thirst. Hunger. Jolt awake. Flash of red. And always pain. Total pain, engulfing and embalming her senses. She was the pain, the pain was her. Then …
A terrible impact as she fell on to hard stone steps, the edges of each one digging into her, forcing the edges of her broken bones farther apart. She tried to scream but she was no longer capable. All that came out was a soft moan. The kind of noise a broken soldier makes in the moments before they succumb to their wounds.
Oh no, wait, that was a scream. Was that her? She saw shapes emerging from the darkness. No, not her. A girl in an old-fashioned dress standing on the steps above her. The face was familiar, but she could not tell from where. Her memories were hopelessly jumbled.
Had she said that, or was it the girl? She couldn’t be sure. She reached out with the arm that hurt least.
Then a bright flash of red, and merciful senselessness.