THE THING THEY MADE
by Ralph Benton
The time when Keira’s eye popped out, that’s when they lit my flare.
I watched, as I always watched, as they shoved her into the airlock. It might have been the third or fourth time that session, but Interrogator Number Six had cycled her many, many times before that. Back when she could still form words she had begged me to look away when they depressurized her. No. I made myself watch as the air pressure dropped to zero, as she twisted and floated, mouth open in a silent scream, spit boiling on her bruised, swollen tongue. I saw her skin puff and stretch as the capillaries exploded, adding to the thousands of bruises, large and small, that covered her body, the body she had once freely given to me.
I embraced her pain to the fullest, and perhaps, somehow, lessened it for her.
Interrogator Number Six called this, “taking her out for a spin,” for her body tended to rotate in the micro-g as the spasms and pain engulfed her. For whatever reason he had decided that she would be tortured with repeated depressurization, and I would not. He never said why, and laughed when I demanded that they cycle me instead.
So I watched as her eyes, already bright red with broken blood vessels, bulged from their sockets. Then I watched her left eye squeeze out of her face and hang there, connected to her blotched face by the glistening white nerve fibres. Did the eye still function? Could she see herself through that fibrous electro-chemical link?
Even now she had something left in her, something human, despite the dozens of cycles that had left her body a wreck and her mind a wasteland. So many blood vessels had burst in her brain that she could no longer speak, and certainly couldn’t answer the same pointless questions Interrogator Number Six put to her during every session. I don’t know if she still recognized me.
But as that orb hung there, tugged along as she drifted, in view of its twin, those gorgeous jade green eyes that first pinned me to my seat all those years ago, she cried. A single tear emerged.
It boiled away immediately of course, and then she slipped into unconsciousness. The show was over, for the moment. She drifted in the lock, yes, spinning, with what was left of her hair framing her puffed and bloody face, the expelled eye trailing along like a pet on a leash.
“Good times, eh, taxi driver?” Interrogator Number Six called out to me. He was vast, a bloated, corpulent mass of flesh. He hadn’t lived under more than .2g in years. His heart and lungs would collapse under the stress and the weight if he ever landed back on Earth, or even Luna Station.
Did I mention he never wore clothes? Or bathed? Each part of him had a different smell. His feet smelled cheesy and rank, while his crotch had a deeper, dead animal odour. His armpits gave off a burning, acrid stench. His breath was like a backlogged DisposAll on a summer day.
“Yes, Interrogator,” I responded automatically. Three years of instantaneous punishments generated the words, and I hated myself for my obedient cooperation. One of the more insidious aspects of torture, I have learned in the hardest possible way, is how you come to hate yourself for what they do to you.
“Please to note, taxi driver, that your wife’s unfortunate mishap is not our fault! Here on Yoo Station our methods have been rigorously reviewed by the Extended President’s most astute legal counsellors. Under the Unilateral Convention we would never inflict pain and suffering equivalent to organ failure or death. That would be wrong! Her accidental ocular readjustment resulted from unforeseeable circumstances. Is that clear?”
“We don’t want any accidental terminations! Remember, you are participating in an act of patriotic self-defence. We could do worse, oh yes. Here at the L5 Extraordinary Detention Facility we are outside the jurisdictions of Planetary Governance, Lunar Station, Elon City, and the mining compacts. While we are remorseless in our quest for justice, human dignity remains our watchword, our cornerstone.”
As my withered mind fought to comprehend the monstrous words, a flare of hate so clear and strong erupted within me that I almost gasped. Then I realized: Interrogator Number Six has so much skin! There must be four or even five square metres of skin! So much skin.
In that instant the rest of my life unfurled so clearly that what ensued in the years that followed felt like I was following a script. My eyes must have remained prisoner-flat for he continued without interruption.
“It’s just us out here, taxi driver! Just me and my friends, and you and your friends.” He laughed.
They’re my friends now, the ones that lived, but we didn’t know any of them before Yoo Station. I met Keira during my stint as a Space Force medic. She was a pilot. After our terms expired we found a beat up, open-space freighter that we christened Eden.
There we were, loaded with tantalum from the Deimos refinery, bound for Luna. Last minute a young couple, two women from Elon City, said they could pay for a last-minute passage. Their credit checked out, so we said sure. We were always looking to make some extra scratch hauling passengers. Our DreamBags weren’t first class, but they were dependable, and me and Keira used the same model as the passengers. We’re in stasis the whole time, so it’s easy credits.
We were a month out of Mars’ gravity well when the Eden AI woke us. A PG frigate had chased us down and announced that they were boarding. The four of us were still half-dazed with stasis-buzz when the airlock cycled and three soldiers piled in. I assumed they were soldiers, it being a PG frigate, but they didn’t wear uniforms or any insignia.
The leader, blond buzz cut and a red face, shouted, “Which of you are Selvedge and Kersaw?” The women, already pale, flinched.
I said, “What’s going on?” and got a stunstick to the chest and spasmed out for a few minutes. When I recovered, the second boarder had my arms pinned behind my back. The two women had been hog-tied, wrists to ankles, so tight their hands and feet were already purple. The third boarder had Keira shoved against a bulkhead with a metal baton jammed crossways in her bleeding mouth. Red spheres of her blood floated through the chamber. The blond was shouting, almost screaming.
“My wife died when that dome opened! My children died, begging for air as their skin shrivelled in the cold! Why! Tell me, just tell me, why did you do it?” He was holding the older of the women by her hair. Her silence enraged him, so he carved off part of her cheek with a combat knife and stuffed the dripping chunk in her mouth.
The two women managed a glance between them, a look of fear and resignation, but also resolve. Even love. Their eyes rolled back in their heads, and I realized they must be accessing neural code. The leader recognized it as well, but too late. Their bodies shook and spasmed. Red jets erupted out of their mouths, noses, ears. The rear and crotch of their stasis suits foamed with blood. Their eyes liquified and melted out of their faces.
“GodDAMNIT!” the leader screamed. “Fuckyoufuckyoufuckyou!” He slammed the now boneless sacks of bloody goo against the bulkheads until the skins split. In an instant Eden filled with dissolved human guts and jellied chunks. Globs of a warm, salty, cherry-red broth, as big as my head, floated and merged and split apart, while the leader ranted and screamed.
Keira and I looked at each other, desperate and terrified. She was always stronger than me. With her eyes she told me to stay calm, not to panic, even as the goon jammed the bar ever deeper into her face until her teeth cracked and the skin at the corner of her lips split. The sound of Keira choking on her own blood refocused the leader. He was drenched in flesh-puree. It bubbled out of his mouth as he spoke.
“And you?” he demanded. “Did you haul the pyrex to Elon City? Did you laugh when the dome unzipped? What are you carrying? Where are you going? Who else is on board? Who’s your contact? Your handler? Who financed you? What are the codes? Tell me the codes!”
They hogtied us and shoved us in a shipping container on the frigate, along with a dozen other detainees. They made it clear that we were not under arrest, that seemed to be important to them. Violations of absolute silence were rewarded with beatings and worse. They made me watch as they raped Keira. They made her watch when they smashed my penis flat with a rubber mallet. They demanded we thank them for the privilege of watching. They said they had gotten too much bad publicity when they broke up families. This was a new family-friendly policy.
We didn’t know we were going to Yoo Station. It hadn’t even been named yet. This was in the weeks after Dome Day. We knew nothing but the questions, always the same questions.
The first year I thought they would recognize the mistake and let us go. I begged, pleaded, told them over and over that we were just freight haulers. Didn’t know about the dome plot, didn’t know those people, we were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Interrogator Number Six laughed as my mind unravelled. He enjoyed his work, and laughed a lot. His body jiggled differently depending on how he laughed.
Bemusement, like when I tried to strangle myself in the middle of a session, that’s when his chest and shoulders would ripple, waves coursing through the fat.
When he brought me out of two months of total sensory deprivation and then opened the sun-shade and blasted the President’s speeches at full volume, that’s when his whole mid-section vibrated, waves that started at his neck and travelled down to his thighs.
“Your face!” he howled. “If you could only see your face!”
But the hardest he ever laughed was the time Keira, after a dozen cycles over two days without sleep, begged him to let me go. Promised to tell him everything if he would just put me on a shuttle to any elevator port on Earth.
“You will?” he said, his tongue licking her ear. “You promise?”
She swore on all that was holy that she would expose everyone, friends and family.
He laughed so hard the fat on his skull and around his ankles jiggled. He wiped away laughter’s tears and ordered her back in the airlock. She fought then, she fought with her last strength.
In that moment he let the truth slip, just a tiny sliver of truth in a place of endless lies. He said, “I know you don’t know anything. But what are we to do with you? Too late for ‘sorry!’ now!” The hatch sealed, and I watched her die a little more, again.
And so it went.
After Keira’s body finally gave up, for I know her spirit never did, my flare and I retreated to catatonia. That oblivion was the only reason I harbour any thought of a God.
Two years passed. Later I learned that moods had changed on Earth, and so Yoo Station changed as well. The screaming stopped, as did the near-constant hum of the airlock pump. No longer was I given a bowl of watery human shit after ten days of starvation. I gradually came back to the universe.
I wouldn’t have made it back without my hate. I love my hate.
Over the next few months I rebuilt my body and mind and planned my flare-bright future. The day I descended the Singapore elevator was the day I began to execute that plan.
First I needed a new face, so I used some of the “resettlement funds” they gave me. Next I needed names, real names, but that wasn’t a problem either. Corruption is baked into Planetary Governance like flour into bread. And the PG is proud of Yoo Station! They didn’t hide what they did, they celebrated it, especially after the Dome Day general amnesty was announced.
The first person I tracked down was the special agent who cracked Keira’s teeth the day we got boarded. He said he left the service after Yoo Station shut down. “It weren’t no fun after that.” We were getting drunk in the 1000 Metre Bistro in the Hotel Riyadh.
I could certainly sympathize, I told him. Wielding absolute power over life, like God.
I was feeling a touch of it myself in that moment.
“Oh, I s’pose,” he admitted. “But mainly I just liked fuckin’ folks up.”
You have to appreciate an honest man. There are so few of them.
What I can tell you, in all honesty, was how much I enjoyed watching his face as the chains on either end of the service baton tightened and began to pull the baton toward the wall. Surplus batons could be found everywhere, the PG had issued so many of them. Oh, did I tell you the baton was strapped across his mouth?
The mechanism I designed was slow, much slower and nuanced than he had been. For example, all of his teeth shattered, leaving white shards (well, really yellow and grey, since we’re being honest) scattered across the floor. My machine took time, delightful amounts of time, whereas he had been so impatient and rushed with Keira.
When his face split as the jawbones dislocated and snapped, I was prepared. I performed a quick tracheotomy and clamped his windpipe with vice grips. If you don’t have a good pair of vice grips, you should get some. Blood had begun draining into his lungs, but we can’t have any accidental terminations! I was amazed that he kept on living even as the bar cracked through the cervical vertebrae and pressed against his spinal cord. His carotid arteries and jugular veins had shifted and stretched to avoid becoming pinched by the bar.
Truly, the human body is a wonder of engineering.
The fun really got going when I hooked the baton to the electricity. It was a party hearty weekend! But such a mess. My boots kept crunching on bits of teeth and bone.
Next I found the boss of the frigate intercept crew. He was working in an insurance office, of all places, investigating claims flagged by the fraud AI. I watched him for a few months until he took some well-earned time off for a trip to the VR palaces. Booked himself three days in mid-twentieth century Saigon. He never made it to Saigon. Instead I pulled him into a sewer drain. It stank down there, but for my plans I needed those facilities.
I wondered for years what our passengers had done to themselves. Then a bio-tech I knew called it rapid induction necrotizing nanotech. The n-virii were too large to pass into the capillaries, which is why their skins didn’t dissolve. It must have been mind-destroyingly painful, but at least they went out quick. For our blond hero, not so much.
I started with his fingers and toes, injecting that same nanotech in amounts almost too small to measure. He and I would watch as the skin turned red and puffy. Oh, but he was screaming during this procedure, while I was not. After the n-virii expended themselves we gaped in wonder at the digit, swollen to a red, taut sphere. Then I would pop it! Smacked it between my hands. Note to self: his reaction told me that the pop must have been even more painful than having his insides turn to jelly.
Did you know that you have twenty fingers and toes? We counted them together. Then this foot, that hand, how about a chunk of butt, a cheek, the tongue, and on and on we danced.
His mind quit on him when I popped his penis. After that all he did was twitch and drool. But I still enjoyed the rest of our time together. I hoped Keira could see us, from somewhere.
Oh, Interrogator Number Six, you were a sly dog, you.
It took me fourteen years to track him to a Martian habitat in a polar orbit. As part of the amnesty, Interrogator Number Six was granted permanent residence in an orbital hab, due to the unique requirements of his bodily arrangement. Your tax dollars at work.
It was a nice hab. I found him in a sauna, drifting in a veritable cloud of his own salty excretions. The fat bastard hadn’t lost a kilo or changed his hygiene. Which was handy, because none of the other residents wanted to be anywhere near him as he oozed buckets of warm droplets.
I managed to stun him and extract his bio-tracker in less than thirty seconds. I tossed the tracker into a waste chute and bundled my bundle of joy into a maintenance bay that had a good-sized airlock.
Because Interrogator Number Six was a good-sized man.
Years of micro-g freight hauling made me a quick hand with bulky, balky cargo, and I had him trussed in no time. Hands cuffed, feet cuffed, and stretched to the fullest, naked, all that flesh gloriously exposed.
As soon as he regained consciousness I asked him a few questions, for old times’ sake.
“How did you get the pyrex to Elon City? What else did you carry? Where were your secret destinations? Who else did you carry? Who was your contact on Luna Station? On Elon City? Who financed you? Tell me the codes!”
Interrogator Number Six wasn’t stupid, he knew immediately in whose hands he found himself. During my search, in idle moments, I would wonder what tack he would take. Bluster? Begging? Demanding? He opted for legalese.
“I’ve been given amnesty, a full pardon, I was working under the cloak of legal authority, we did what we did in self-defence!”
I gave him the questions again. And laughed.
Sometimes I poked him, to watch the waves of fat ripple across his body. I grabbed a big fistful and squeezed and twisted, which he didn’t like. I tugged, he twirled slowly around the axis of his outstretched arms and legs.
Sitting in that airlock put me in a bit of a funk, thinking of Keira. We would have had such a good life! Damn them all. For the first time since leaving Yoo Station, I got really mad.
I got out the vice grips, the same ones from before. Then out came the little blade I had used to excise the bio tracker. He watched all these preparations while keeping up the stream of legal babble. Some lawyer must have taught it all to him. Maybe I should find that lawyer next.
I approached his trembling, quivering bulk. “Shhh,” I whispered. “Just a little cut. Only skin deep.” Which was true. I made an incision about a centimetre long, with two more slits perpendicular to the first cut. “There,” I said, and put the blade aside. “See?”
His eyes darted back and forth, but at least he had shut up. Blood got his attention.
I closed the jaws of the vice grips on the little pull tab of skin I had made. No doubt that hurt, but Interrogator Number Six kept his dignity. For the last time
“Now,” I said, “let’s take you out for a spin.”
The course of the rest of his life finally dawned on him. He started to scream. I grabbed a handful of warm flesh and gave it a tug.
The skin came off easily, in a nice long, even strip. His mass was such that inertia kept him spinning even against the resistance of the skin ripping away from the flesh.
I was amazed. “Look at this!” I exclaimed as I showed him the strip.
He was blubbering and howling, but he saw what I meant, even if he didn’t share my wonder at the physics and biology of the situation.
“Now, we’ll have to cauterize that wound. We run a clean facility here.” Personally I thought the newly exposed strip of jiggly yellow fat was kind of disgusting, but I didn’t want to make him feel bad. I stepped out of the airlock. He really started bawling when I did that.
I cycled the airlock and sat back to watch. I was not disappointed.
The blood on the wound boiled away immediately, leaving a fleshy crust. Interrogator Number Six experienced the full panoply of pain and terror and humiliation that poor Keira had endured so many times, ending with his asphyxiation and resuscitation.
Once he regained consciousness I re-entered the lock. I grabbed the flesh of his skull and peered into his face. Yes, the first capillaries had burst in his eyes. Excellent.
“Was it funny when bodies popped out of the dome? Who brought the pyrex? Who handled the money? Who met you at Luna? Who ran the job on Elon City? What are the codes? Tell me the codes! Tell me the codes!”
He couldn’t answer through the mucus ball that had accumulated on his face. I picked up the blade and vice grips and said, “Let’s take you out for a spin.”
After a dozen spins and three or four cycles I took stock.
“You know, Interrogator Number Six, I know you don’t know anything. But now what am I to supposed to do? Can’t exactly say ‘sorry!’”
Interrogator Number Six didn’t respond. His autonomic nervous system had overloaded.
“Anyway, I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do here.” I showed him the ball of accumulated skin ribbons, all red and rubbery. “This is, what, maybe a quarter of a square metre? And look at all this fresh pink skin we have to go!” I gave his enormous rump a vigorous swat. I’m sure slapping flayed flesh must sting something awful.
“You and I,” and I got way up in his face, our eyeballs practically touching, “we’re going to have a good time for the next few days, a real good time.”
I gave him a few more stripes and then ran him through another depressurization cycle to evaporate the tears.