Isolation story: (11) Karel’s Prayer

I can’t imagine anything that would make me feel more isolated than being completely in the power of enemies who meant me harm.

This story was first published in Interzone in 2006 and is included in my first collection, The Turing Test.

Karel’s Prayer

The first thing Karel Slade noticed when he woke up was an odd smell in his hotel room.  It was like the plasticky smell of a new car which has just had the polythene taken off its seats, but with a hint too of something antiseptic, a hint of hospital.  And it was entangled in his mind with the mood of a fading dream in which he was drowning or suffocating, or being held down.

The second thing he noticed was that the radio alarm hadn’t gone off.  It was now 8.00 and his plane home flew at 8.45.


He leapt out of bed naked – a big, broad-chested, athletic man in his late forties, with thick silvery hair – and grabbed the phone to get a taxi.  But the line, unaccountably, was dead. 

 “I do not believe it!”

He pulled on his trousers and headed for the bathroom. But it was locked.

8.03, said the clock as he went to the door of the room and found that locked too.  The phone rang.

“Mr Slade, please come to the door of your room.”

“It’s locked.”

 “Please come to the door and walk through.”

Beyond the door, where the hotel corridor should have been, was a large almost empty room, entirely white, with three chairs in the middle of it.  Two of them were occupied by men in cheap suits.  The third, a tall straight-backed thing which reminded Karel both of a throne and of an electric chair, was empty.

The two men rose.

One of them, the tall, wiry black man with the gloomy, pock-marked face, went to the door that Karel had just come through, closed it and locked it.  The other, the rotund Anglo-Saxon with the curly yellow hair and the affable expression, came forward in greeting.

“Mr Slade, good to meet you, my name is Mr Thomas.  My friend here is Mr Occam.”

 Karel did not take the extended hand.

“Who the fuck are you and what the fuck do you think you’re playing at?”

There were those who said that Karel was surprisingly foul-mouthed for a prominent Christian leader, but as he often pointed out to his family and his friends, coarse language might be undesirable but it wasn’t swearing and had nothing whatever to do with the third commandment.  You had to have some way of expressing your negative feelings, he always argued.

“Sit down,” said Mr Occam shortly, returning to stand beside his colleague.

 Mr Thomas gestured to the throne.

“No,” Karel told him. “I don’t feel like sitting.  I do feel like listening to your explanation.”

“Sit!” commanded Mr Occam.

“Yes, do sit,” said Mr Thomas, “and then we can talk sensibly.”

He returned to his own chair.  He was one of those people who manage to be both plump and nimble.  His quick, graceful movements were almost camp.

Karel shrugged, went to the chair and sat down.

With a buzz and an abrupt click shackles came out of the chair legs and fastened themselves around his shins.

“Lay your arms down on the rests,” Mr Occam told him.

“What?  And have them shackled too!”

 The black man approached him.

 “I will hit you Mr Slade if you don’t put your arms on the rests.”

  Karel did as he was asked. 

   Buzz.  Click.  The shackles slid into position.

Mr Occam nodded curtly – a taciturn man acknowledging a small courtesy – and took his seat alongside Mr Thomas.

“Now Mr Slade,” said the more amiable of the two men, “let’s see if we can answer your questions for you.  Who the fuck are we?  Well, suffice to say that we work for a government agency.  What the fuck are we playing at?  That’s easy.  We’re carrying out an investigation.  An investigation concerning a terrorist organisation.  And we believe you may be able to help us with our inquiries.”

Mr Occam gave a small snort.

“He is going to help us with our inquiries.”

 Mr Thomas turned to his colleague gravely.

“Do you know what Mr Occam?  I think you may be right.”

*  *  *

God help me, Karel prayed.

He was very very afraid but trying hard not to show it. 

 Please God, help me!

 As ever, when he needed it most, his faith seemed to have deserted him.  But we should expect that, he reminded himself.  In the darkness and confusion of a fallen world, we should expect thatAfter all, if the world wasn’t fallen, people wouldn’t need belief.  They would just know

Please God, help me! he tried again and this time help did seem to come.  For a merciful moment he was able to hold the thought in his mind that all this was only happening to one man at one particular point in space and one particular moment in time.  Beyond this room, outside of this moment, the world was still the world.  And beyond the world, that tiny inconsequential speck, there was eternity.  There was always eternity.  The same as it ever was.

“I have rights,” Karel said.  “You can’t detain me and shackle me and question me without a warrant.”

“With respect,” said Mr Thomas, “I think we’ve just demonstrated to you that we can.”

“But you’re breaking the law.  You’re violating my constitutional rights.  Sooner or later you’ll have to release me, and then this will get out.  I’m a prominent man.  I head an organisation with more than two million members.  I have connections.  I…”

“Why do you think we’ll have to release you?” queried Mr Thomas with what seemed like genuine curiosity.

“Well of course you…” Karel broke off, realising that there were, after all, other theoretical possibilities. 

“Listen,” he said, “if I’m not out of here very soon, my family and colleagues will start demanding explanations.  And they’ll go on until they get explanations.  And then you two men are going to be in deep trouble.”

“You think so?” Mr Thomas wiggled his head from side to side doubtfully, weighing up the merits and demerits of a questionable argument.  “Well who knows?  Who knows?  But you should let us worry about that.  After all, you’ve got other things to consider.”

“Yes,” said Mr Occam. “Like for example your membership of the SHG.”

“The Soldiers of the Holy Ghost,” said Mr Thomas regretfully, almost as if embarrassed to bring it up, “an illegal terrorist organisation responsible for several hundred deaths over the past five years.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Karel.  “I’m Executive Director of Christians for Human Integrity.  It shares some theology with the SHG, yes.  But it’s an entirely legitimate organisation, properly registered with all the appropriate authorities.”

“It’s a front for the SHG,” stated Mr Occam.

“And you, Mr Slade,” his colleague continued, “are a leading member of the SHG’s strategic command.  Why deny it?  You can see for yourself that we know it, so what would be the point?”

While Mr Thomas was speaking, Mr Occam leant forward and stared intently at Karel’s eyes.

Don’t try too hard to look sincere, Karel told himself. It was the mistake that liars always made, like drunkards trying too hard to act sober, like unfaithful husbands trying too hard to appear uxorious, rushing home from their mistresses with chocolates and bunches of flowers for their wives.

“I do deny it,” he said.  “I deny it completely.  Now let me call my lawyer.”

“No, Mr Slade,” said Mr Thomas.  “That’s not going to happen.  And don’t lets go on and on about it, eh?  Or it will get so…”

Mr Occam broke rudely across him, leaning forward to bark a question into Karel’s face.

“Do you deny you support the aims of the SHG?”

“No I don’t deny that.  Like the SHG, I’m opposed to any form of artificial life or artificial reproduction of life.  I’m opposed to artificial intelligence, I’m opposed to cloning, I’m opposed to designer babies and I’m opposed to field-induced copying of human tissues.  But it’s not a crime to object to tinkering with human identity.  Millions agree with me.  A majority of the population quite possibly.”

 “And do you deny that you support the methods of the SHG?” asked Mr Thomas.

Tell the truth whenever possible, Karel told himself.  The fewer lies the better.  But he’d need to choose his words carefully.

“I believe that their use of violence is in principle justified by the cause.  Most Christians for the last two thousand years – including all the Christian members of the present government – have believed that violence in some circumstances is justified.  It’s the traditional doctrine of the Just War.  If Christians can legitimately invoke that doctrine to justify war in defence of purely national interests then they are certainly entitled to invoke it when it comes to defending the integrity of the human person.  But that’s an intellectual and theological position.  It doesn’t mean that…”

“You are a member of the strategic command of the SHG,” Mr Occam said.  “Not intellectual position.  Not theological position.  Fact.  You know that.  We know that.  We’re not even going to discuss it.  You’ve been actively involved in funding and planning attacks on laboratories and laboratory staff for the past five years at least.  What we want from you is names, code words, bank accounts, structures and systems.  And you’re going to tell us all of them, Mr Slade.  One way or the other you’re going to tell us the whole lot.”

 “No I’m not, because I don’t know them.”

“Oh for Christ’s sake man,” grumbled Mr Occam, rising wearily from his chair and hitting Karel very hard across his face.

 “You can’t do that!” Karel yelled at him.

It had hurt.  It had frightened him.  But more than anything he was shaken by his own baby-like helplessness.  He was a man who liked to be in charge of his own life.

Mr Occam hit him again, this time so hard that the entire chair toppled sideways and crashed to the floor.

Help me God, prayed Karel, shackled to the fallen chair.  He could feel blood running down his cheek.  He could taste the rusty tang of it in his mouth.  Help me remember that this is just pain.  It’s essentially trivial.  It’s just something that’s happening for a very short time indeed to the most temporary part of me. 

They’d had a training course in the SHG –  “Using Faith to Withstand Torture” – and a set of guidelines that they’d instilled into all their members.  But they also knew very well that, faced with the agony of the Cross, even the Son of God had lost faith for moment.  So they’d set themselves a limited goal: you can’t hold out forever but try at least to hold out for one day to give the rest of the organisation time to go underground. 

 One day, Karel thought, just one day.  That had to be manageable.

The guidelines proposed two stages.  Stage A was to stonewall as long as possible, denying all knowledge.  Stage B, when the torture got too much to bear, was to give false information.  There were various fake addresses and phone numbers which would keep the enemy busy for a few hours, and tip off the people outside that they were under threat…

But for now Karel needed to try and stick to Stage A.  Actually, as long as they stuck to hitting him, he felt quite confident he could cope.  Hitting just hurt after all.  It was only if they got onto needles and blades that he would start to be vulnerable because, brave though he was about most things in life, he was absolutely terrified of being pierced or cut.  He always had been.  Ever since he sliced open his knee when he was a kid and had looked inside before the blood came, and seen his own white bone.    

 “Names, code words, bank accounts, structures and systems,” repeated Mr Occam.  “Starting, now, with the names of the other four members of the strategic command group.  The real names, not the crappy fake ones that you and your pathetic friends have dreamed up.  We know all about Mr French of Dawson Street.  We know about Mr Gray of Oldham Road.”

Parallel to the floor in his toppled throne, like the fallen king at the end of a game of chess, Karel quailed.  Telling them about the fictitious Mr French and Mr Gray had been Stage B.  So now there was nothing pre-prepared to fall back on.

“I told you,” he said, “I don’t know any names.  I don’t even know what the strategic command group is.”

 Wham.  Intense pain and nausea.  Bright lights in his eyes.  Mr Occam had kicked him in the stomach.

“Don’t lie to us you murderous piece of shit.  We aren’t just guessing here.  We know you’re high up in the SHG.  We know that since the death of Leon Schultz, there’s no one senior to you in the whole gang.”

A sour strand of vomit, mixed with blood, dribbled from the corner of Karel’s mouth.  The mention of Leon Schultz had shocked him.  A wealthy hotelier who had died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack three weeks ago, Schultz had indeed been the leader of the SHG, but Karel had thought this was known only to himself and his four colleagues in the strategic command group.

 “Names,” said Mr Occam, “now!”

 He kicked Karel again.

“Hey!” protested Mr Thomas, standing up.  “Easy Mr Occam now.  Easy!  You’re letting it get to you again.  Maybe you should take five while I have a quiet word with Mr Slade here?”

“Quiet fucking word be damned,” grumbled the black man.  “Let’s stop pussyfooting around.”

It was hard for Karel to see what Mr Occam was doing because he had moved into a part of the room which was nearly above his head, but there was some kind of cabinet there against the wall, like one of those cabinets with many narrow drawers that you get in museums, holding fossils or sea-shells or pressed flowers.  Mr Occam was opening and closing drawers, muttering.  And then something silvery glittered in his hand and he turned and advanced across the room.

Oh shit God, Karel prayed. Help me please. If you love me God, make him put that back.

“Come on Mr Occam,” said the fat man, standing in front of his colleague and reaching up to lay his hands on his shoulders.  “You know it’s not time for that yet.  We need to give Mr Slade a little space.  A man takes a few minutes to figure out how he’s going to get round his entire system of belief.”

 Mr Occam made a disgruntled noise.

“Come on man, take five,” said Mr Thomas.  “You know I’m talking sense.”

Mr Occam hesitated and then, to Karel’s surprise and huge relief, he nodded.  Returning the blade to the cabinet, he strode across the room, opened a door and went out, out into the mythical world which lay beyond these four white walls, its existence almost as hard to believe in now as that of the Kingdom of Heaven itself.  The door slammed.

Ten minutes must have gone by already, Karel told himself.  Just six times that and I’ll already have done one hour.

*  *  *

“Mr Occam’s got all kinds of nasty things in that cabinet there,” said Mr Thomas, returning to his seat and leaning forward to peer down concernedly into his prisoner’s face.  “Knives, razors, pliers, even a blow torch.  You know, like one of those little ones people use to make that crunchy caramel crust on a crème brulée?  Nice in a kitchen but, man, it hurts when you use it like he does, with the vinegar splashed on afterwards and all.  But I think those sort of things should be the very last resort.   I’m not a sadist.  Maybe I’m in the wrong job but I honestly don’t like causing pain.”

Karel, the fallen chessman in his sideways throne, said nothing.  Of course he had heard of the good-cop bad-cop routine and he understood that a game was being played.  But he desperately desperately wanted to keep the good will of the reasonable Mr Thomas and to keep the ruthless Mr Occam at bay.

“Actually,” said Mr Thomas, “Mr Occam isn’t a sadist either.  You should see him with his grandchildren.  He’s gentleness itself.  But he’s an angry man, that’s the thing.  His little brother was maimed by your people, you see.  Bomb went off at the lab where he worked.  Concrete beam fell on top of him.  Legs mashed to a pulp.  Had to have them both off at the hip.  Girl beside him – nice girl, Gloria: as a matter of fact they were talking about getting married – she was decapitated by the blast.  He was trapped in there for an hour and a half next to her headless corpse.  Well, need I go on?  Just imagine it was your little brother Mr Slade.”

 Karel said nothing.

“He can’t stop thinking about it actually,” Mr Thomas said. “You wouldn’t believe how it eats him up.”

He stood up with a sigh.

“Come on now, let’s get you upright.  I really shouldn’t do this with my bad back, but I just can’t talk to a man in that position.”

With a grunt of effort he levered Karel and his throne back up, then returned to his own seat, puffed and red-faced.

“I know you people sincerely believe what you are doing is right,” he said.  “I know you sincerely believe that what Mr Occam’s brother was doing was wrong.  But, man, he was working on ways of duplicating human organs for transplants.  He was only trying to help.  You can see why Mr Occam is angry, can’t you?  You can see why he feels entitled to hurt you.  Your people didn’t seem to care much about his brother’s feelings after all.”

Karel still said nothing.  Intellectually his position was that the SHG should feel no more and no less responsible for the individual tragedies that resulted from their operations than the bomber pilots who helped rid the world of Nazi death camps should feel responsible for the individual tragedies that befell German civilians in the cities they bombed.  There would have been mashed legs there as well.  There would have been many decapitated girlfriends.  But he couldn’t say that without incriminating himself further.  After all, his position was supposed to be that the SHG weren’t “his people” at all.

“Yes.  I can see why he’s angry,” he said.  “I would be too in his place.  But those laboratories, those technologies, they’re brewing up all kinds of horrors for the future.  They’re blurring the boundaries between a human being and a thing.  You don’t have to be a Christian to see that, surely?  Without that distinction, there…”

He broke off.

 “But I’m not going to change your mind here am I?”

 Mr Thomas laughed pleasantly.

“I’m a public servant, Mr Slade.  My opinions are neither here nor there.”

 “How can you be a public servant if you don’t obey the law?”

“Ah, but those are the written laws you’re talking about Mr Slade, aren’t they?  Laws for the daylight, laws for the public stage.  You’ve got to bear in mind that every public stage also needs a behind-the-scenes, a backstage.  There’s got to be a place where things can be a bit messy and untidy, and where it’s okay to leave the ropes and props and bits of scenery lying about.  Do you know what I mean?  The show’s the point of it all, the show’s what it’s all about – that’s indisputable – but it’s what goes on behind the scenes that keeps the show going.”

 Mr Thomas stood up.

“I’ll tell you what.  Why don’t I leave you here to think for a little while?  You think about what you could do to help us, and I’ll nip out and have a quick word with Mr Occam there, see if I can persuade him to cut you a little bit of slack.”

*  *  *

Fifteen minutes at least, thought Karel, sitting in the middle of the empty room.  Get through three more times what I’ve done so far and that will be an hour ticked off already.

And it would only be another hour before Caroline realised he wasn’t on the plane.  She’d know at once that something was wrong.  She’d know to inform Matthew using the agreed code.  Matthew would set the wheels moving to get everything in the SHG battened down in readiness for the coming storm, and Caroline meanwhile would do the worried wife routine, using all the formidable resources she possessed as a TV celebrity: phoning the TV stations and the international press, phoning lawyers and churches and civil rights groups, e-mailing the two million members of Christians for Human Integrity.  Twenty-four hours?  Who needed twenty-four hours?  It would be a couple of hours at most before the light of day began to break through into Mr Thomas’s “behind-the-scenes” and Messrs Occam and Thomas began to feel the heat.

It was worrying that they knew about Leon Schultz though.  How had they found out?  How did they know about Mr French and Mr Gray?  What else did they already know? 

The door opened.  Mr Thomas came back in, followed by a sombre Mr Occam.  They both sat down in their chairs in front of him.  It was as if Karel was being interviewed for a job.

“We’ve decided to give you a bit of information,” said Mr Thomas.  “Something we’ve been holding back from you.  We think it may help you come to a conclusion.”

Mr Occam stood up, walked slowly over to Karel’s throne.  Karel braced himself for another blow.  But instead the sombre black man leaned forward and placed his hands on the ends of the chair arms, so that his face and Karel’s were no more than a foot apart.

“You’re not Karel Slade,” he said, and for the first time he very faintly smiled.

His breath smelled of tobacco and peppermint and garlic.

“What do you mean I’m not Karel Slade?  Of course I am!”

Instinctively Karel looked past the implacable Mr Occam to the accommodating Mr Thomas.  But Mr Thomas made the regretful grimace of a person who reluctantly confirms bad news

“It’s very hard to take in I know,” he said, “but it’s true.  You’re actually a copy of Karel Slade; you’re not Karel Slade himself.  In fact the real Karel Slade knows nothing of you at all.  He knows nothing of any of this.”

Mr Thomas paused like an experienced psychotherapist giving a client some space to process a difficult truth.  Karel needed it.  He was frozen in the sense that a computer can be frozen when so overloaded with tasks that it can’t proceed with any of them.

“Incidentally,” Mr Thomas said, “it’s actually a lot later in the day than you probably think it is.  It’s actually early evening.  The real Karel Slade got up at 6.30 this morning, caught his plane and is now back with his wife, Caroline.    They’re at a restaurant with Caroline’s brother John and his new fiancée Sue.  I believe the meal is in celebration of John and Sue’s engagement.”

“Not without me, they’re not.  That was my idea.”

“It was actually Karel Slade’s idea.  You think it was your idea because your brain is an exact copy of Slade’s and contains all his memories and thoughts.”

“Oh come on,” said the man who still believed himself to be Karel Slade, “I can see you’re trying to disorientate me, but to suggest I’m some sort of clone is really absurd.”

 “Not a clone,” said Mr Occam. 

“No of course not,” said Mr Thomas. “That would be absurd.  A cloned copy of you would take forty-eight years to grow – and even then it would only be a body copy of you.  It wouldn’t have your memories.  And it’s your memories that we’re after.”

 He leaned closer.

“No, you’re not a clone, Mr Slade, you’re a field-induced copy.  Last night when Karel Slade got into that hotel bed he didn’t know it but he was actually getting into a scanner.  The precise imprint of his body on the surface of space-time was recorded, right down to the subatomic level.  And then this imprint – this field – was reproduced by an Inducer in the mineral bath from which you eventually emerged.  It’s a bit like dropping a crystal into a solution.  It takes a bit of time, though, which was why we had to tinker with the clocks before we put you back in that fake-up of your hotel room and waited for you to wake up.”

Karel knew about the field induction process.  Like artificial intelligence and genetically engineered babies, it was one of the things that Christians for Human Integrity  and the SHG were both fiercely opposed to.

“But no one’s ever copied more than a few cells,” he said, “and the government declared a moratorium on the whole thing a year ago, pending the report of the Inter-House Committee on Ethics.”

Mr Thomas nodded.

“But we’re back to what we were talking about earlier, aren’t we?  About the difference between the public stage and behind-the-scenes?  There is a moratorium on field induction research and it’s perfectly appropriate in a civilised society that there should be, but behind-the-scenes has its own needs.”

 “You mean you just went ahead with field-induction in secret?”

“Well we couldn’t pass up on a technology like that, could we? Not in all conscience.  As you pointed out yourself at the beginning of this session, suspects have all kinds of rights – and properly so. They can’t be physically hurt.  They’ve got to have a lawyer present.  They can’t be held for more than a short period of time.  It’s all very laudable.  But we’ve got a responsibility to protect the public and, if we can work with a copy of the suspect, none of those problems need apply.  What’s more, if we do it right, the suspect and his associates need never even know that we’re onto them.  Karel Slade for example has no idea you’re here and that you’re about to incriminate him and the entire leadership of the SHG by telling us everything he knows.”

“I am Karel Slade, and I’m not going to tell you anything about the SHG because I don’t know anything.”

“I know it’s hard to grasp.  I know it’s just too much.  But you’re not Karel Slade.  It’s just that you have no other memories except for the ones that were copied from Karel Slade’s brain.”

“You’re a copy,” said Mr Occam bluntly.  “Get used to it.  A couple of hours ago we fished you out of the tank and dried you down with a towel.  Two hours earlier you were a lump of meat.  Two hours before that you were just soup.”

“Perhaps it would help to clarify things if we gave you another name,” said Mr Thomas.  “Let’s call you…  I don’t know… let’s call you Heinz.”

  Mr Occam seemed to find this amusing. 

“You always call them Heinz,” he complained.  “You always call them Heinz or Campbell.”

“Not always,” protested Mr Thomas.  “I sometimes call them Baxter.”

There was a TV set in the corner of the room.  He strolled over to it and switched it on.

“Something I’d like to show you Heinz.  We have one of our sleuths at the restaurant where Karel and his wife are dining at the moment.  The Red Scallop.  Only just opened this week, I understand…”

Karel – or Heinz – could see them on the screen: Caroline, John, Sue round the restaurant table… and Karel Slade, large and voluble, teasing his brother-in-law about something or other while the women laughed.

“This is a fake,” he said, “you’ve done this with computer graphics.”

“What, since yesterday?  It was only yesterday you phoned Caroline and suggested this restaurant, remember?  Previously you had a table booked at the Beijing Emperor.”

 “Somehow you’ve done it since yesterday.”

 “Dear God, Heinz, we’re good but we’re not that good.”

“I’m not called Heinz, I’m Karel Slade.  And that isn’t a live transmission.  It’s a fake.”

“Okay, let’s test it,” said Mr Thomas.  “What’s your cell phone number?”

Karel told him.  Mr Thomas punched the number into his own phone and paused with his finger on the “call” button.

On the screen John was replying to Karel’s banter.  Caroline and Sue were watching Karel to see how he would react.  They were smiling in anticipation.   Karel could be a very funny man.  They were looking forward to a laugh.  Caroline’s hand was resting affectionately on his arm.

“Now you tell me when to push the button,” said Mr Thomas. “You choose the moment.”

In the restaurant Karel was acting the outraged innocent in response to whatever John had jokingly accused him of.  They were all laughing now.  The waiter had just arrived with the starters.

 “Now,” said Karel-in-the-throne.

 Mr Thomas pushed the button.

Karel-on-the-TV reacted at once.  The smile faded to an irritated “What now?” expression as he felt his jacket pockets for the ringing phone.  When Mr Thomas hung up, Karel-on-the-TV examined his phone to see who the call had come from, shrugged, replaced it in his pocket and, muttering something to Caroline in passing, turned his attention first back to the others and then to the generous plate of seafood in front of him.

Karel-in-the-throne shrugged, as far as a man can shrug when his arms are shackled.

“You could do all that with computers.  You could easily do all that.”

 Mr Thomas smiled. 

  “Okay, demonstration number two coming up.”

He took out of his pocket a device like a TV remote controller and pointed it at Karel’s throne, which rose about an inch as small wheels emerged from the bottom of each leg.  Mr Thomas and Mr Occam got up from their own seats.  Then, with Mr Thomas leading the way, Mr Occam pushed Karel back through into the room where he had woken up, as if he was some elderly invalid in a wheelchair. 

It seemed incredible to Karel now that he hadn’t realised at once when he woke up that the alleged hotel room was simply a crude stage set.  The walls were plywood panels, in some places not even properly screwed back onto the frame. There was a blank white screen outside the window where there was supposed to be a view of the city.  But you see what you expect to see. 

Only the sense of smell, it seemed, was not so easy to fool.  All that had troubled him on waking had been that plasticky, slightly disinfectant smell.  

However it wasn’t the room that that Messrs Occam and Thomas wanted to show him.  Using his remote, Mr Thomas unlocked the bathroom door and they passed through.  Of course there was no bathroom.  In fact what lay beyond wasn’t so much a room at all as a hangar or a factory floor.  Its dull metallic walls rose to the height of two ordinary rooms and it was the length and width of a soccer pitch.  Down the centre of it was a row of five large ovoid objects lying lengthways, each about three metres long and two metres high.  They were complex structures, made predominantly of metal.  A thick mass of cables – red, green, black, blue, yellow, multi-coloured – fed into plugs across their surface and trailed back across the floor to a bank of monitors against the wall.  There was an ozone smell and a soft electrical humming.

“In case you’re wondering, Heinz,” said Mr Thomas.  “These giant Easter eggs are Field Inducers.”

They approached the nearest inducer and Mr Thomas pressed a button on its surface to make a segment of the egg slide upwards to create an opening.  Inside, beautifully illuminated by lights both above and within it, was a bath of clear liquid.  It smelt of iron, like blood.  Karel could feel the warmth of it in his face.

“So you’re trying to say you grew me in there?”

“You don’t grow things in a Field Inducer,” said Mr Thomas.  “You assemble them.  Field induction isn’t a biological process.  It’s a physical one.  Think of making a recording of a sound.  You don’t try and reproduce the same conditions that led up to the sound being produced in the first place, do you?  You by-pass all that.  You construct a device that can copy the sound waves themselves.”

“But yeah,” said Mr Occam.  “That’s what we fished you out of.  When you’d got a face, that is, when you’d got past the stage of just being a big clot of blood.  We fished you out, put you on the recovery table and got you going with a jolt of current.  Then we gave you a shot to put you to sleep for a bit and took you through to the bed.”

Mr Thomas nodded.

“So what we’re saying, Heinz, is that this is the soup can you came out of.”

Karel couldn’t help remembering his dream of drowning and of hands holding him down, but he managed a derisive snort. 

“It’s all a film set,” he said.  “Like the hotel room.”

All of this was actually good, he tried to tell himself.  It was good because it was taking up time. The longer he could keep Mr Thomas and Mr Occam busy with trying to prove he was a copy, the nearer he’d get to his twenty-four hour deadline before having to face the challenge of physical pain. 

“Hang on, Heinz, hang on,” laughed Mr Thomas, “we haven’t finished yet.”

Mr Occam pushed him forward to the second Field Inducer.  Once again Mr Thomas touched a button.  Once again inside a warm metallic smell wafted out as the device opened up …

Then Karel gasped.  Suspended in the fluid, neither floating nor sinking, was a flayed human corpse. 

“Dear God,” he whispered.  “What have you done?”

That thing bothers you does it?” growled Mr Occam.  “You should have seen my brother’s girlfriend after you lot blew her head off.”

The thing suspended in the water was dark red like congealed blood, its half-formed face an eyeless, orifice-less sculpture made of blood.  All over its surface were hundreds of fine, branching strands, which at first seemed to be some kind of growth like seaweed, but then turned out not to be solid outgrowths at all but patterns of inward movement, rivulets of matter being drawn from the surrounding fluid and streaming into the solid mass of the body.

 “Recognise the face at all?” asked Mr Thomas.

Karel looked at the eyeless mask.  Red as it was, eyeless and hairless as it was, covered as it was by the little branching rivulets, the resemblance wasn’t immediately obvious, but now that he looked more closely it was unmistakeable.  This thing was a likeness of himself.

“We always make several copies,” said Mr Thomas.  “It gives us a margin of error.  If we’re too rough with the first copy and it goes and dies on us, we can fall back on one of the others.  Copies aren’t quite as resilient as originals unfortunately.  In fact in about ten per cent of cases you can’t even get the heart to start and we just have to bin the things.”

He looked down thoughtfully into the mineral bath.

“It’s funny.  It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen this, I still always find myself wondering why they don’t drown down there, and why they don’t float or sink to the bottom.  It’s hard to get your head round the fact that it isn’t a living entity at all at this stage.  Nothing is moving in there.  The field is a rigid template, the matter flows into it, and once every particle is in place, it is locked there, completely and utterly motionless.  It’s the ultimate in suspended animation.”

They moved towards the third Inducer.

“This will only have been started a short time ago,” said Mr Thomas as the panel slid open.

At first this one seemed empty – there was certainly no solid object in there – but after a moment Karel made out a faint reddish vaguely man-shaped blur.  Mr Thomas took an aluminium pole which rested against the Inducer and stirred the liquid until the reddish mist had disappeared.  Then he laid down the pole again and they watched as the wispy shape slowly began to reassert itself.

“Suppose what you say is true,” said Karel/Heinz.  “Suppose that I am only a copy of Karel Slade.  Why tell me?”

 Mr Thomas glanced at Mr Occam.

“Well in a certain sense, Heinz, it doesn’t make much difference to us whether you believe yourself to be the original or the copy.  Either way you have the information we want and we’re going to extract it from you by any means possible.  And if that involves razors, that’s too bad.  If it involves putting vinegar on your scalded flesh or pulling off your nails with pliers, that’s too bad too.  But it does seem unfair.  So Mr Occam and I, when we talked outside earlier, we agreed that you might like to reflect on your position a bit before we go any further.”

“What do you mean, my position?’

“Think about it Heinz.  Think it through.  If you resist and we have to hurt you, you won’t be suffering on your own account but on behalf of Karel Slade.  You’ve never been part of the SHG.  We know that.  In fact we’re your alibi. We can vouch for the fact that we fished you out of the soup ourselves, only a few hours ago.  So there’s no doubt about it, you’ve never ordered anyone’s death.  You’ve never harmed anyone at all.”

Mr Thomas took hold of Karel’s throne by the arms and turned it to face him.

“You’re an innocent man, Heinz,” he said.  “Why should you suffer on behalf of someone else?  Why should Mr Slade be protected by the law while we torture you to try and stop his wrong-doing.”

“Even if I am… Even if I’m not…” 

Karel glanced at the misty red phantom of himself suspended in the mineral bath.  Tears came welling up into his eyes.      

“I mean whatever I am,” he persisted, fighting them back, “my beliefs are still the same.”

“Hang on a minute there, Heinz, are you quite sure about that?” protested Mr Thomas.  “Your beliefs the same?  Think about that for a minute.  Think, for instance, about what Karel Slade would think of you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Wake up Heinz!” said Mr Occam giving the throne a rough shake.  “Wakey wakey!  You’re a copy, remember?  You’re an abomination against God.  That’s what Karel Slade thinks, doesn’t he? He thinks that even the lab technicians who make things like you deserve to be killed.  And as for you yourself, well you’re just an object to him, aren’t you?  You’re just a thing.”

“That’s right isn’t it Heinz?” asked Mr Thomas.  “In Slade’s book you’re not even a person. You have no soul and no feelings.  You have no rights, not even a right to pity.  Think about it.  That man we watched in the restaurant earlier on, if he knew what was going on here, would be pretty worried.  But he wouldn’t be worried about you.   He wouldn’t give a damn about you.  Your feelings just wouldn’t come into it.”

“So if you don’t tell us what we need to know,” said Mr Occam, “and I have to hurt you, you’ll be suffering for another man who cares nothing for you.  A man who denies that you are even capable of thinking and feeling.”

“But he’d be wrong there wouldn’t he?” said Mr Thomas. “You do think, don’t you Heinz?  You do feel.  Mr Occam and I, we know that and, like I said before, we aren’t sadists, whatever you might think.  We’d really rather not hurt a living thing who’s done nothing wrong at all.”

 Heinz looked from one to the other of his two interrogators.

Help me God, he began to pray, but then stopped.  How could he pray if he was a copy?  What was he to God?  God belonged to Karel Slade, laughing and joking in the restaurant with his pretty wife, not to this flimsy shadow, summoned out of nothingness by a machine.

“So what will happen to me?  When this is done, I mean.”

“Well if you stop to think about it, Heinz, I think you’ll realise that we’re going to have to terminate you,” said Mr Thomas gently.  “As you pointed out yourself, you can’t legally exist.  And copies don’t last long anyway.  A week or two at most.  You’ll have to go.  But it can be peaceful if you want it to be, quiet and peaceful and soon.”

“Yeah,” said Mr Occam, “and think on this.  If you act stubborn and we end up killing you the nasty way, well then we’ll just take that blood-clot guy out of the inducer there and start hurting him.  And if he doesn’t play ball, well then we’ll take out that cloudy guy – he should be good and solid by then – and start on him.  And if he plays the hero, well then, we’ll get a few more copies going that don’t even exist yet, and bring them alive just so they can suffer like you.  But if you talk, well then they’re all on easy street.  They can all stay in oblivion for good.”

Mr Thomas touched a button on the Inducer and the lid slowly closed. 

*   *   *

Back in the interrogation room, Heinz told them the codes and the names and the bank details.  What were these things to him after all?  He was no more responsible for them than a traveller at an airport was responsible for contraband slipped into his luggage when he was looking the other way.

When Heinz was finally done, Mr Thomas went and fetched three cups of coffee from a machine in some other part of the building that Heinz would never see.  He brought the three cups in on a little plastic tray, along with some little packets of cookies, and used his remote controller to release Heinz’s wrists from the shackles so he could hold his own cup and eat his own cookies.  For a short time they all sipped peacefully in companionable, almost dreamy, silence, enjoying the warm surge of caffeine in their blood.

But after a few minutes, with the sigh of a man reluctantly picking up a burden, Mr Thomas placed his half-empty cup on the floor, reached into his jacket and took out an automatic pistol with a long white silencer. 

Heinz felt no emotion.  Less than twenty-four hours ago, after all, he’d been nothing but inanimate matter.  He’d been a simple solution of minerals in a bath.  Why fear a bullet that would simply return him to his natural state?

“Hey!  He needs to know the truth first,” Mr Occam said.  “Before he dies, he should know who he is and the price he’s paid.”

 Mr Thomas sighed.  Then, with a regretful grimace, he nodded.

“Listen Heinz,” he said gently, lowering the gun.  “Mr Occam is quite right.  I’m afraid there’s one more thing we haven’t told you.  One thing we haven’t been straight with you about.  You see, it is true that we copied Karel Slade.  It really is true.  But here’s the thing.  We lied to you when we said you were the copy.”

“What do you mean?”

“He means,” said Mr Occam, “that you really are Karel Slade.  We knocked you out with chloroform in your hotel room and brought you here.”

Heinz remembered the hospital smell and the dream of being held down.

“But…  That can’t be.   I mean… what about the restaurant?  I mean we saw Karel Slade in the…”

“He was a copy,” said Mr Thomas.  “Though he doesn’t know that of course.  He believes he’s the real Karel Slade.”

“But…” Heinz – or Karel – struggled to frame a coherent question.  “But why swap us round then?  Why not just leave me in the hotel?”

“Copies aren’t perfect.  They always die after a week or two.  Sometimes it’s a stroke or a heart attack.  More often two or three body organs pack up all at once without warning.  And copies have a way of just suddenly dying on us if we put too much pressure on them.  Doing things this way round avoids that problem.   And what’s more it gives us a way of eliminating Karel Slade the terrorist without blowing our cover.  It’ll look as if he died of natural causes.”

 A small puzzle resolved itself in Karel’s mind. 

 “Yes,” he said slowly.  “Yes I see.  Just like with Leon Schultz.”

“Exactly.  We copied him too.  He told us everything he knew.  The rest of you took the copy for the real man and never suspected anything.  Your copy will die soon just like his did.”

“He might die tonight, of a heart attack, in bed with that lovely wife of yours,” said Mr Occam, smiling coldly for the second time since Karel had met him. 

“James!” reprimanded Mr Thomas.

Karel looked up.  He’d barely been touched by Mr Occam’s jibe, but he was rather startled to discover that his tormentor had a first name.

“What’s your given name?” he asked Mr Thomas.

“Herbert,” said Mr Thomas, a little uncomfortably.  He quickly formalised things again by prefacing the name with a title.  “Agent Herbert Thomas.”

Then he caught Karel’s eye and glanced down at the gun to remind Karel politely of their unfinished business.  Karel nodded.

“Give me one minute,” he said.  “Just one minute.”

“Of course,” said Mr Thomas. “You need to sort out who you are again.  I understand that.  Just let me know when you’re ready.”

Transferring the gun to his left hand, he reached down for the remains of his cup of coffee.

“Ever had that thing when you wake up in the morning and, just for a moment, you can’t think who you are?” he asked Mr Occam.  “It’s a mystery, this identity thing.  I never cease to be amazed how quickly we can persuade a man to part with it.  It’s just…”

Then he remembered that these were Karel’s final moments on Earth and he broke off, placing a finger on his lips with an apologetic glance at his prisoner.

In the silence Karel bent forward in his execution chair and tried to pray. 

Dear God forgive me.

But there was no sense of a presence listening to him.  Well, of course not, he thought.  He couldn’t really expect just to pick up the mantle of being Karel Slade again and expect to resume business as usual.  Not after what he’d done.  It didn’t work like that.

Dear God forgive me, he tried again.  I just didn’t know. I didn’t know who I was.

Copyright 2006, Chris Beckett

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