Authors: Brian W. Aldiss
This story is dedicated to those who cannot yet read,
my grandsons, Archie and Max,
and to those who now can, Thomas, Laurence, and Jason,
in the hope that they may
all live in a more harmless world than ours.
I am all-powerful Time which destroys all things,
and I have come here to destroy these men.
Even if thou dost not fight,
all the warriors facing thee shall die.
in the Bhagavad Gita 11:32
And he was afraid, and said,
How dreadful is this place!
This is none other than the house of God.
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
“Unbelievers, I do not worship what you worship,
Nor do you worship what I worship. I shall never worship
what you worship, nor will you ever worship what I
worship. You have your own religion and I have mine.”
The Master said: “If one has heard the Way in the morning,
it is all right to die in the evening.”
UTHORITY ORDAINED IT.
Lesser authoritarians carried out its orders. No nation ever lacks those who will carry out orders.
The man this tale concerns was taken into custody. There had been a carefree time for foolishness, but that time was gone. This was the time for seriousness, for a war against terror. A nation’s security was at stake.
ERTAIN LIBERTIES HAD TO BE CURTAILED—
such as foolishness and satire and freedom of speech. They belonged to a bygone epoch. Now there was a new epoch. “Every man must brace himself against the hidden enemy among us.” So it said in the leaflet.
HE CAPTIVE WAS HOODED AND SHACKLED.
He was young, although already aged by imprisonment and the fears imprisonment brings. Two soldiers pushed or dragged him along, complaining about the difficulty of the task as they went. They moved down a long corridor. Military boots echoed on tile. A door was opened. The prisoner was flung inside an empty room. A door slammed behind him.
He was known as Prisoner B.
LAY WHERE HE WAS,
sprawled on the floor. Slowly he pulled himself into a sitting position and dragged the hood from his head. He simply sat there, breathing shallowly, trying to recover his wits. His ribs ached from the recent beating.
Gradually he became aware of his surroundings. He was in a large room, not a cell. The room was windowless. Such light as there was was supplied by a naked bulb far overhead. He crawled on hands and knees to the nearest wall. It was covered with a floral wallpaper, now faded. Evidently the room had been pressed into use as a cell for prisoners. Evidently, too, this place in which he found himself had once been a grand mansion, a mansion by no means devised for its present ends.
Leaning against the wall for stability, Prisoner B made himself stand. In one corner he saw a bucket and managed to walk over to it, where he relieved himself.
He propped himself against the wall, pressing the palms of his hands against it to stop their trembling. When he attempted to consider his situation, no thought came to him. He was simply a prisoner, totally within the power of his captors.
The hours passed. He had nothing to do but await the next spell of interrogation. It was impossible to imagine anything beyond the walls of this prison.
A bench stood against the far wall. He went over to it. An ordinary garden bench had been brought inside, presumably to serve as a bed. In his weakness, he lay down on it. The bench was too short for any sort of comfort. His legs dangled over the end of it. In any case, he felt too drained to get up.
After a while, he fell into a feverish kind of sleep.
Two guards came and woke Prisoner B in what he believed to be the middle of the night. They wore rough civilian clothes. He was slightly encouraged by this and asked them, as they hauled him into the corridor, “Where am I?”
They gave no answer.
“I mean, what
are we in?”
One of the men said, “We’re in fucking Syria, aren’t we?”
Fresh terror assailed him. “Syria? It can’t be. I thought Syria was an enemy state.”
“Shut the fuck up” was the only response.
They took him to one of the interrogation rooms.
He was in a small room with what he took to be a Turkish decoration on one wall. A voiceless thing within his head kept repeating “Syria, Syria, Syria.” In his disturbed state, he could not recall where Syria was. But there was little chance for anything resembling speculation. Soldiers stood alertly in the room, cuddling carbines. He was made to stand before a desk, behind which sat a thin man with a square jaw and heavy eyebrows. His head was shaven.
He sat quietly, his large red hands folded on the desktop, regarding his prisoner through a pair of unblinking eyes.
“Are you okay?” he asked. A friendly enough opening.
“Then stand up properly. You’re not in whatever stinking hole you came from.” He paused. “I shall ask you some questions. You will answer without lying. Understand?”
When Prisoner B nodded, the interrogator roared, “Do you bloody well understand?”
He switched on a desk lamp so that the beam shone in Prisoner B’s eyes.
“Yes, I understand.” He lifted a hand to shade his eyes.
“Put your lousy hand down. What age are you?”
“What age will you be next year at this time?”
“Twenty-two or dead. Say it.”
“Twenty-two or dead.”
“Name your father.”
He did so.
“Name your mother.”
He did so.
“Name all your brothers.”
He did so.
“Name your sister.”
He did so.
“She is a filthy prostitute.”
“She is a filthy stinking prostitute, I said. She is in another room even now, servicing our soldiers of low rank.”
“Not by choice.”
“Of course by choice. She can’t get enough of it. You are here because of a report from ISID incriminating you.”
“I don’t even know what ISID is.”
“Don’t play the fucking innocent with me. ISID is the Pakistani antiterrorist organization. What is your job?”
“Why do you write lies?”
“You are paid to write lies about us.”
“You are paid to write lies, you little bastard!”
“No. What lies do you mean?”
“You wrote this filthy book,
Pied Piper of Hament.
There you slandered the religion and the leader.”
“No. You cannot prove I did that.”
“You did. You were flogged for it.”
“Why was the book published in countries hostile to us?”
“It won critical approval.”
“Do you know these bastards?”
The interrogator read from a laudatory section of a foreign review. “It says, ‘Some of the scenes in the novel are particularly vivid, particularly those set in London. The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is most amusing, described as a relic of an old imperial system, now redesigned as a tourist attraction.’ And so on…”
“That critique contains some inaccuracies. I was never in that reviewer’s country.”
“Yes, you were. The year before last. We have proof.”
“Oh yes, just for two days.”
“You stinking treacherous liar.”
Prisoner B was kicked from behind, again and again, on his buttocks and thighs.
“That’s enough! How long have you been a member of Al-Muhajiroun?”
“I don’t even know what it is.”
“You bloody liar! It’s an extremist Islamic group, full of evil bastards and suicide bombers. A man was arrested last week in Kensal Town, in the street next to yours. You belong to this group.”
“I certainly don’t. Are you arresting everyone in Kensal Town?”
“Look, don’t try to be funny with me, you shit! We’re just carrying out EU policy.”
They beat him up.
The interrogation lasted for another hour.
Prisoner B had heard most of the questions before.
S HE WAS BEING DRAGGED BACK TO HIS CELL,
a bell rang. His escort halted abruptly.
“Prisoner, face the wall!”
He turned and pressed his face against the old wallpaper. The escort also pressed their faces to the wall. They stood rigid as a man dressed in a dark-gray suit with a pale face behind rimless glasses walked past at a brisk pace.
Prisoner B was already used to this process. Controller Gibbs insisted that prisoners should not see him but should virtually cease to exist by turning their faces away.
The underlings, marching the prisoner on, disliked this performance.
“Bloody bullshit,” said one of them. “Who’s he think he is? The Queen?”
The other man responded that things would get even worse when Abraham Ramson came to do his inspection. “You better watch your step then, sonny boy!” he said half-jokingly to Prisoner B, digging him in the ribs. “Ramson’s the big cheese—or thinks he is.”
The prisoner had seen before that this order of menials, while they performed their duties, were stubbornly set against those in authority over them. Their duties were just a job for them. They went home at six in the evening to wives and kids, and a bottle of beer with a square meal, innocent of ideology.
E WAS BACK IN HIS CELL.
A different room, but much like the previous one. This room had a skylight in its roof, high overhead. The glass had been covered over, but one corner of the fabric covering it had peeled back, allowing in a crack of sunlight. Sunlight lit a small triangular pattern high on one of the walls.
Abraham Ramson…Another cause for dread…
Lying isolated in the great edifice, he became aware of furtive noises nearby. He raised himself on one elbow and looked about. A cardboard box stood against the near wall. Several mice were busy on top of the box, chewing the wallpaper. He thought to drive them away—but why should he? He tried not to listen to the business of tiny jaws.
Prisoner B went to look at the tiny triangle of light.
He never saw any other prisoner, although he heard their screams. He might otherwise be alone in the world. He knew there were French interrogators and American interrogators, and once there had been a stand-in Polish interrogator.
He was feverish. He imagined that the patch of light was another world where men were free.
Where men were free…
The light faded. He continued to stare at the place it had briefly lit.
It must be night in that other world. It was called Stygia.
He muttered to himself some lines he recalled from a great poem:
The Stygian council thus dissolved; and forth
In order came the grand infernal peers;
Midst came their mighty paramount, and seemed
Alone th’ antagonist of heaven, nor less
Than hell’s dread emperor, with pomp supreme…
HATCH SET LOW
in the cell door opened and a bowl of soup was thrust in. The prisoner knelt and drank from the bowl. The soup was of cabbage, with a ring or two of onion thrown in. He ate greedily, all the while becoming more and more convinced that he knew a world called Stygia, where there was more hope and less harm than in this world.
The ill-tasting soup made him more feverish. He believed himself to be swimming or floating in his wealthy cousin’s swimming pool. He was in five feet of water. The sun shone on the back of his head.
He looked down at his shadow on the bottom of the pool. The wavelets he created showed as ripples of light seeming to emanate from his shadow-body. His arms are outspread. He has power. Power resembles strong chords played on a mighty organ.
The emanations carry him onward. He scarcely needs the movement of his arms.
The great ethereal thing is on its way…His mind shifts.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…
And he is free upon that other planet. His feet are bare and already walking barren ground. Squadrons of winged insects fly past him. It seemed that Stygia was empty of human beings. He was floating over valleys and mountainous territory, over wide rivers and lucid lakes, over plains and jungles. All he saw living were insects, some of poisonous brightness; others, crawling, of intense blackness.
Many days and nights seemed to pass before he came to a broad, green land which terminated in tall cliffs, standing against a dark, violet sea. There stood the colonial Stygia City.
He circled above it before drifting down and entering the alleys and streets of the strange city. Upon gaining a wide square, he saw before him a grandiose building, presumably the government Center. It had a flat roof, supported at each corner by two large pillars. He moved closer. Vision was bad. At the top of each pillar, carved cherubs nestled, cherubs with huge eyes and fly faces, making light work of pretending to support the roof.
Prisoner B found it difficult to focus his eyes. Hauling himself forward over bare boards, he realized he was looking up at an old grand fireplace. The grate area had been filled in. All that remained was the stone framework, where two ornate pillars, decorated with winged cherubs, supported the shelf of the mantelpiece. The cherubs had plump cheeks and innocent faces. This was the room where he was held captive, a room enclosed in what had once been a grand mansion, now used for inferior and more sinister purposes. Stygia had dissolved to nothing.
Rough hands on his collar pulled him to his feet.
He was walking, dragging his feet, between two armed men, to an interrogation room. They forced him into a chair. A light shone into his eyes. He tried to remember his own name.
Two men entered the room, boots sounding on the bare floorboards. The prisoner saw that the leading man was in uniform; then the light eclipsed his view. The uniformed man sat down on the far side of the table and shuffled some papers. The man who had entered with him stood alertly behind his chair. Then the interrogator spoke, in a deep, slow voice.
“This is where we establish clarity. That is the purpose of this institution. To establish clarity.
“No more fooling around, Prisoner B. We are going to get to the bottom of this matter. You will answer my questions without evasion.”
“I have answered all possible questions,” said the prisoner. Just to speak was a labor. His mouth was dry and dirty.
“You need to speak distinctly. Guards, water!”
One of the armed men brought up a bucket half full of water and dashed it over the prisoner’s face. It did serve to revive him to some extent.
“All right. Your name is Fadhil Abbas Ali, correct?”
“Paul Fadhil Abbas Ali. I am a British citizen.”
“What makes you think that?”
“I am second-generation born in London. My father left Uganda as a young man. I was born in Ealing.”
“Well…no faith at all, really.”