Saturday, January 12, 2013

Short Story: Wearing the Enemy

Here's a short story about a prisoner of war:

The handcuffs that bound Jacoby Reese’s wrists were too tight. And the way the soldiers used his elbows for a steering wheel, grabbing them and yanking them to make him lose his balance and turn to catch it, only made them tighter.

There were two of them, and they both wore forest camouflage BDU’s. Chevron-shaped stripes indicated their rank--Private First Class--but otherwise their uniforms were plain. They bore no service ribbons, no nametags, nothing even to indicate which military their wearers were members of. The male on his left was almost stocky, with skin the color of bittersweet chocolate and eyes that looked Asian. The female on his right was tall, muscular and blonde. He wondered if she was Swedish.

The guards they’d passed on the tarmac, and at the entrance to this building, had been dressed in city-flage, and now other soldiers were passing them in the corridors, some in city-flage and some dressed for the desert. And from what Jacoby could observe in passing, they also had no markings except for rank. He wondered if their uniforms might provide a clue as to this prison’s location: likely it was in or near a desert. The forest camo of his escorts was probably nothing to go by: they’d been with him on the plane ride, and even before that. He’d first noticed them soon after his capture on the island.

The male Private suddenly pulled on Jacoby’s left elbow, causing him to reel leftward, lurch and catch his balance a split second before his forehead would have collided with a pane of glass. The glass was part of a door, framed in painted metal the color of mud, and reinforced with a wire grid. As Jacoby stepped back to give the soldiers room to open it, he couldn’t help feeling like a school child being dragged to the Principal’s office.

The Principal, in this case, was a Lieutenant in a shiny black pageboy, seated on a backless swivel stool with casters. To her right, or to the left of her from Jacoby’s perspective, was a grey metal desk that looked like a leftover from World War II, with a modern LCD monitor and a keyboard on it, and behind her stood a cheap-looking sheet-metal cabinet, its white powder-coat beginning to bubble with rust. To her left was a stuffed chair upholstered in vinyl the color of mustard. Its thick square arms and legs seemed to be made of oak and were bare except for the patches where the finish hadn’t quite worn off yet.

The Lieutenant looked at the three of them like she’d been expecting them, but she didn’t get up. And the Privates didn’t salute. They just shoved Jacoby’s elbows forward, and he stumbled into the room. The male closed the door and the female pushed him down into the yellow chair.
The Lieutenant turned to face him. She seemed to be about Jacoby’s own age—mid twenties—and might have had a chance to be pretty if it weren’t for all that arrogance. Her uniform was urban camo and, like the others, bore only the double-bar symbol of her rank. “What were you doing on Lessing Island?” she demanded. Her English was clear, but she had an accent. He would have been surprised if she hadn’t.

Jacoby just watched her and remained silent. The female private stood beside him with her weapon aimed at his stomach and her finger on the trigger, while her partner shackled his ankles to the legs of the chair.

“Why did you and your mates spend the whole night hidden on the island?” the Lieutenant asked him. ‘Mates,’ she’d said, not ‘friends.’ So maybe it was British English she’d learned, not American. Jacoby wondered if that little detail had any significance.

The Privates removed his handcuffs and locked his arms in place. His hands were numb; pretty soon they’d start to tingle and hurt. The male swabbed the inside of his right elbow with an alcohol pad. The Lieutenant opened the metal cabinet, got out a syringe in its packaging and a clear glass bottle nearly full of a colorless liquid, and put them on a tray on the desk. Then she got out a pair of purple nitrile gloves, closed the cabinet and put them on.

The Privates were standing near the door now, like sentries, and another soldier came into view, apparently having entered from somewhere behind Jacoby’s chair. He was a Corporal. Smallish guy, shaved head, urban camo, no markings. He had a piece of rubber, long and narrow like the ones in the medical labs, and he tied it around Jacoby’s right upper arm.

The Lieutenant tore the wrapper off the syringe and filled it from the bottle, pointed it toward the ceiling and got the air out of it, then spun around on her stool, slid the needle expertly into Jacoby’s vein and pushed the plunger.

It burned going in worse than meperidine, and made his head swim. “That wasn’t pentothal,” he observed, “What was it? What did you put in me?”

The Lieutenant smirked and stood right in front of him, her shiny black combat boots between his scuffed suede hikers. “What were you doing on Lessing Island?” she asked quietly. She nodded to the Corporal, who pulled off the rubber tourniquet.

A feeling washed over Jacoby. Like I’m drowning, he thought, even though he’d never even been close to drowning. The Lieutenant’s face went out of focus, and he wasn’t sure he could keep track of anything else in the room anymore.

And somebody needed to knock this Lieutenant down a peg or two. “I was fishing, alright?” he yelled up at her blurry face, “so let me go: I’m a civilian!” His words sounded slurred.

He thought he heard a snicker by the door. “Fishing for what?” someone mumbled. It was the female Private’s voice.

The blurry Lieutenant still stood over him. “Why did you and your mates spend last night hidden on Lessing Island?” she asked calmly.

“Smug!” he thought, and then realized he’d said it aloud. “We were camping, okay? You satisfied now, you nosy bitch? We were camping.”

She didn’t seem to mind the insults, but then he couldn’t be sure, since her face was still out of focus. “If you and your mates were only camping,” she countered, while the Corporal wrapped a measuring tape around Jacoby’s neck, took a measurement and pulled it off again, “then why did you choose one of the rare spots where there is no granite to block signals?”

Jacoby was surprised. “Didn’t know that,” he said honestly. “We left our phones at home because we didn’t think there was any signal anywhere on the lake.” His words were still coming out all slurred, like he was talking in his sleep or something. And his head was still swimming. “What did you give me?” he asked again, “Wasn’t sodium pentothal.”

“You don’t really think I’m stupid, do you?” she asked, almost sweetly. “We both know I’m not talking about cell phones, so why the charade?” She pronounced ‘charade’ the French way: ‘sha-RAHD’. “Where is your equipment?”

“At the campsite,” Jacoby answered. The Corporal measured his left ankle.

The Lieutenant shrugged and turned to face her desk, her back to Jacoby. The Corporal walked over and leaned down beside her and they formed a huddle. They stayed that way for minutes, conversing, apparently looking at the computer monitor. They weren’t speaking English of course, but that was no problem for Jacoby.

“Not too small, though,” said the Corporal. “Is that too small?”

“It’s bigger than the narrow part,” the Lieutenant replied. “Unless you doubt the figure?”

“No, the figure is correct,” said the Corporal, “but the size of the narrow part could change, no?”

“With the flow of life, yes,” she answered after a pause. “But not too big an adjustment, for fear of being lost.”

“I like this,” said the Corporal after another pause. “Do you approve?”

“Yes.” The Lieutenant turned back to Jacoby and the Corporal walked around his chair and disappeared behind it. They were still blurry.

“Can’t understand a word you’re saying,” Jacoby complained, mostly as a reminder to himself. He was a civilian, and he’d been out with his buddies camping and fishing. The mission didn’t exist, and he didn’t speak anything but English.

“Where at the campsite?” she asked, taking up right where she’d left off. “I’m afraid we didn’t find it.”

“What are we talking about again?” Jacoby honestly couldn’t remember, beyond the fact that she obviously wanted to know who he was and what he was doing, and he wasn’t going to tell her.

“Your equipment.”

“Oh, yeah, the equipment. All the equipment we had, we left at the campsite. Your lackeys didn’t let me take any of it with me when they brought me here.”

“Where is it?”

“Why do you keep asking?” Jacoby demanded, genuinely annoyed. The way his head was swimming, even ‘What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?’ would have felt like a trick question. “I told you, everything’s at the campsite.”

“I’m afraid we didn’t find any of it,” she replied, her voice dripping with a smug sweetness, “so I need you to be more specific. Which piece is where?”

Jacoby sighed. “Well, let’s see. The sleeping bags are in the tents, the stove is in—“ She slapped his face, and it stung. “Electronic equipment.”

“That,” he replied dramatically, trying and failing to add emphasis with a gesture of his bound right arm, “is not at the campsite.”

“Where is it?”

His thoughts, his mind, were so hard to control. “Those damn drugs!” He winced when he realized he’d said that thought aloud, too. At least it was about the drugs, though, and not the mission, so no harm done. “Where is what?” he mumbled, verbalizing on purpose this time, to drown out thoughts of the mission, but being careful to keep his volume down and speak in the direction of his left knee, so his interrogator wouldn’t think he was sassing her, and slap him again. “Oh, electronics.” Mosquito repellers—he’d had an electronic mosquito repeller on him. “I guess it’s in the plane, maybe,” he said. “They took it off me, maybe in the plane.”

The Corporal was back. He was carrying something, and put it on the desk. The Lieutenant turned around again, seemed to be examining the object. She nodded. “Do it,” she said, but not in English. She sat on the stool, facing Jacoby, and watched.

The Corporal knelt in front of the chair and clapped something around Jacoby’s left ankle, just below the shackle that bound him to the chair.

“What is that?” Jacoby asked, but no one answered.

The Corporal stood and got the object from the desk, went back to Jacoby, placed it carefully around his neck and snapped it shut.

And then he woke up. His head felt like it could split open at any instant, and part of him wished it would. He was sick to his stomach.

He forced himself to open his eyes and look around. He was alone in a concrete cell. No shackles or handcuffs, but the objects around his neck and ankle were still there. He tried to examine the ankle one, but had to stop to vomit. There was a drain in the concrete floor, and he got to it just in time.

When he was done he looked at the thing on his ankle again, but he didn’t make much of it. Probably a tracking device, like they make people wear on house arrest. He brought his hands up to his neck and felt that one. It seemed to be like the thing on his ankle, only bigger, but other than that he learned nothing. He tugged on them, but of course he couldn’t get either one of them off. If they were tracking devices, he wondered why there were two of them.

The mission. The mission was paramount, essential: he had to find a way out. He decided to start with an examination of the ceiling, but he couldn’t even see the ceiling. That damn headache! He threw up in the drain again and decided the examination would have to start with the floor: at least he could use his hands for that. He hoped the way out wouldn’t turn out to be too close to the drain.

He got the floor done—even the drain, but it wouldn’t budge—and allowed himself a nap. When he woke up he still couldn’t see the ceiling very well. For the first second or two he could see it alright, but after that it would go all swirly and black. So he felt the walls, like he had felt the floor, and when he’d gotten all the way around as high as he could reach, he lay down on the concrete and had another nap.

“Wake up,” said a male voice quietly. “You awake yet?”

Jacoby jumped to his feet almost before his eyes were open. The cell door stood open and in the doorway stood another corporal in anonymous urban camouflage.

“Relax, dude, I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. He unhooked a canteen from his belt and held it out to him. “Bet you’re thirsty.”

He was thirsty alright! Felt like he could have downed a gallon of water. But this could be a trick. He turned the canteen away from both of them and opened it slowly.

The Corporal laughed. “It’s just water,” he said. “Feel free to drink it all.” He was one of those guys who probably had no trouble getting dates.

It was just water. Jacoby drank it dry and handed it back. “Thanks,” he said.

“No problem. The things on your neck and ankle are a tracking device and a communications device. We can hear everything you say—that’s why it’s so close to your voicebox—and we can use it to shock you. Just a little shock, like this…” He reached into his pocket and an electrical charge surged through Jacoby’s body. It wasn’t strong--it felt like more like a near miss than a real shock--but it was certainly strong enough to get his attention. “…means you need to report to your reporting point immediately. I’ll show you where your reporting point is, when we go out.”

They were going out, then. That made the devices a little more understandable.

“If you disobey orders,” the Corporal continued, “we can turn up the voltage, so be warned. And you can’t leave the prison, of course. There’s a signal at the perimeter that will knock you unconscious the moment it hits you. I recommend staying away from the fence, to avoid accidents. You don’t want to trip, and fall into it.”

Jacoby still had to find a way out: the mission had to be completed, and he was the one to complete it. “Look,” he said to the Corporal, “there’s been some kind of mistake. I’m a civilian: I’m not even supposed to be here. Is there a review process? How do I get out?”

The Corporal shook his head. “I wouldn’t waste your energy. There’s really no review process, except that they keep records. But I wouldn’t worry. It’s true that we never ratified the Geneva Accords and that we don’t follow them, but we do voluntarily collect name, rank and serial number and forward those to your government. If there’s a mistake, they’ll figure it out.”

“One more thing,” said Jacoby. “Any idea what they injected me with? It wasn’t pentothal.”

“That depends. Who’d you have?”

Jacoby shrugged. “Nobody seems to wear nametags here.”

“Do you remember what he looked like? Old bald guy?”

Jacoby laughed. “Female. Straight black hair.”

The Corporal nodded. “I know the one. Diluted vodka.” 

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and Wearing the Enemy is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Wearing the Enemy, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here

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