Vikram took his time with the meal they brought him, puzzling over the source of the fresh arugula salad and the grated carrot that adorned it. The raw pecans were even more baffling, and he could tell by their texture they hadn’t been frozen or refrigerated. The dressing was a basic bottled variety, but that hardly detracted from the marvel of it all.
The roasted chicken breast he thought might be synthetic, but it was an extremely palatable effort. That they would feed him, a prisoner, such excellent fare made him feel a little ashamed. Then he considered what abundance they must have been keeping to themselves for all these years, and his shame disintegrated. Even his people in Taaj were paupers by these standards, and people in the Cradle were happy just to get enough calories to keep their bodies from starving.
He cleaned his plate, and put the plastic fork on it before sliding it under the small gap built into the base of the barred door. It intrigued him that they still used this old fashioned jail-cell style, and he wondered if perhaps the US Navy had cannibalized some older ships in order to furnish their brig. It would make sense, given the budgetary concerns. The chipped green paint on the bars and the decade-old biometric security system confirmed his guess.
The sailor on guard shift removed his plate from the ground without speaking to him, and stood waiting for her relief to arrive, which it promptly did in the form of Sergeant of Marines Abdullah Williams. Vikram had met him briefly during his tour of the ship, and had noted then how similar he was in build and colouring to himself. His name suggested anglo paternity, and he was just a shade shorter, his expression a generic stoic mask that failed to hide his contempt for the prisoner.
He exchanged a salute with the sailor. She left with the plate, not troubling to acknowledge Vikram, just like the rest of his guards. None of them had noticed his subtle investigation of the various metal fixings of the cell, nor had they detected his secret. Now it was just a matter of waiting down the minutes. Timing would be critical.
He took to his bunk, and let himself drift into memory. It was an exercise he’d had to learn, but it allowed him to rest his mind to some degree. Never was he able to truly free associate, and sleep was something he’d had to learn by rote. He couldn’t risk falling asleep, but he could do something that was almost like lucid dreaming, as long as he chose the right subject material. He let himself slip into a pleasant memory, a pre-dawn walk along the cliffs of Dover he had taken as a teenager. It was an imperfect memory, because of the ever changing nature of sea and sky, and even he could not record all of the rapid minute changes that occurred in nature. Still, that blue morning was as pristine as any record made of it, and it saddened him to know it lived only in his mind.
Estimating he needed about three hours, he chose the long scenic route, shuffling his way through patches of long grass, his eyes moving over the looping white cliffs. Slowly, they took on the colours of the dawn, those pinks and golds that were so particular to that time of year.
To be alone, with the freedom to move in any direction, without witness or companion to dilute his attention, was something Vikram had rarely experienced in his life. More often he was in motion with an entourage around him, people dictating his agenda, asking him for time, taking his photograph, demanding he give comment. Here, or rather, the here of his subconscious, there was no human voice to press on his ears. Just surf, gulls, and the voice of the biting winds.
It was approximately three hours later when he shelved his meditation and woke to his purpose. Sergeant Williams, no doubt unaccustomed to having his leisure time interrupted with guard details, stared blankly into the middle distance, perhaps caught in his own recollection.
Vikram began to drum his fingernails against the edge of the metal bunk frame. A stoccato rhythm, mindless and repetitive. It echoed off the blank walls, increasing in pitch and speed as he moved to another part of the frame where the shape would cause the sound to become more grating.
“Knock it off,” the Marine barked from his standing post near by in a flat midwestern accent. Vikram smiled, and continued, making the motion more rapid and irritating. He’d let his nails grow for especially for this purpose, and he was rather enjoying the effect.
“Are you deaf?” The Marine said as he came closer to the cell.
Ignoring him, Vikram carried on, mentally coaxing the man to react to the provocation, to fulfill the purpose intended for him. After a moment, the angry footsteps sounded as they marched toward the cell. The shadow of the sergeant loomed from behind where Vikram lay, and he knew he was ready.
“That’s just about e-god-damned-nough—“
Sergeant Williams was not at all expecting it when Vikram lunged at him, seizing the front of his fatigues through the bars and pulling him forward. Already overbalanced, Williams could not step back in time. He was helpless, unable to escape as Vikram jammed the tactical grade stungun into his ribs and sent 1200 volts of electricity directly into his body.
He twitched comically, his nervous system instructing his body to collapse, which it did. Before his legs could go out under him, Vikram grabbed his wrist through the bars, and with some considerable effort, pulled his hand up to the biometric scanner that controlled the door to his cell. It was a challenge — Williams was heavy, convulsing, and now he was attempting to struggle. Vikram applied the stungun a second time, this time to his chest, causing his victim to pulse with electrical energy. That was enough, he decided. Sergei had provided Vikram with the weapon from the security arsenal, and it was powerful enough to cause heart failure. He didn’t want the man to die just yet, or to lose control of his bowels.
Grasping him by the wrist in both hands, he shook with the effort of lifting it, given he was dragging most of Williams’ weight up, and was in danger of dislocating the man’s shoulder. He was just able to get the hand up to the scanner, and with a satisfying little trill, it unlocked and provided an operational menu. Vikram knew from watching Julia Ortiz how it was was configured, and he maneuvered Williams’s hand so that his finger would land on the correct option.
The door opened with an obliging little spring, sliding sideways a short distance on its rail. Vikram let Williams’s hand drop, and stepped out of the cell. He looked down at the man, who was no longer twitching, but was likely experiencing the full body soreness of his paralyzed muscles. His expression was pained, but the contempt was also present. He snarled, saliva dripping from the corner of his mouth, his eyes red from burst capillaries.
“You look like you’ve had a stroke, Sergeant,” Vikram observed. “What do you think?”
Williams let out a strangled growl, and attempted to turn on to his front, but he was still too weak from being repeatedly electrocuted. Vikram watched as he tried to pull himself along the floor, contemplating how to solve the problem.
It was the open door that gave him the solution. He stepped back into the cell and grabbed Sergeant Williams by the fabric of his fatigues. He had an easier time dragging Williams’s vaguely struggling body than he’d had reaching the biometric scanner, though it still required a great deal of effort. Vikram positioned Williams so that his neck lay across the threshold, just between cell doorway and the steel door. From there it was just a matter of rolling him on to his side with his face against the wall.
It was easy to use the cold-rolled steel barred door as a bludgeon, and it moved smoothly on its oiled track as Vikram slammed it into his neck. The blow from evoked a high-pitched whimper of pain from Williams as the blunt edge fractured his neck vertebrae. Vikram estimated it would only take a few more to fully incapacitate him, and proceeded to bash the door’s against the young man’s neck in repeated quick blows until he appeared to have lost motor function.
This made it easier to remove his fatigues. As he unlaced the man’s boots, Vikram felt the sweat dripping down the back of his neck, and his eyes were blurry with tears. He observed himself from a distance, interested to note that the anguish and the revulsion at his own actions that were affecting his body did not seem to touch his mind. It was like a low-frequency sound— the meaning incomprehensible, but the deep thrumming pressure acted upon him, rattling his physical responses.
He undressed, using his prison uniform to wipe the sweat and tears from his face. In a moment, he was dressed in Williams’s fatigues, side arm holstered at his hip. He tugged Williams’s hat out from under his head and pulled it on, tilting the brim downward. At a distance of a few yards, he would pass. It wouldn’t take long.
It was another twenty minutes before Lieutenant Gossett arrived. She was also a Marine, one of the few detailed to remain behind to guard him. She also had never spoken to him, except for clipped commands, her demeanour calm, but firm.
She was looking down at an NCOM screen as she approached, and paused a few feet away. “Any problems, Sergeant?”
The sound of the cocking pistol raised her head at once, her eyes going wide as she realized it was Vikram pointing it at her. Her attention diverted, the NCOM screen dissolved.
“I want you to listen closely to me,” he said, speaking with calm deliberation. “You’re going to unholster your weapon, and set it on the ground. Then you’re going to open the guard station door for me.”
She narrowed her eyes, recovering her composure with remarkable quickness. “Why do you need to go in there?”
“That’s all you really need to know,” he said with a bland smile. “There aren’t much in the way of options for you right now. I could shoot you, and get your hand on the scanner before your pulse dries up. If that doesn’t work I can wait for the next shift, and your body will provide a token of encouragement.”
She stood firm, glaring at him as she unclipped the holster and pulled her pistol out, dropping it on the floor. “Surrender. There’s nowhere to go from here.”
He shrugged and used his foot to slide the gun further up the hall, away from easy reach. “Another option is that I finish killing Sergeant Williams back there.”
She tried to look around him, only catching a view of Williams’ twitching foot. She tried to move past, but Vikram blocked her way.
“Old friend, n’est-ce pas?” he smiled kindly at her. “I’ve heard you call him Abdi. He’s going to die if he remains without assistance.”
Helpfully, Williams moaned, though it might have just been his dying brain making its final, irrelevant communication. Gossett, her brow clouded with confusion, looked uncertainly down the hall, then back at Vikram, and the pistol in his hand.
“If I open the station for you —“
“I’ll let you go to him,” Vikram promised. “You can wait in the cell. I’ll send a message back as soon as I’m clear of the ship.”
He could tell she was breaking. She was a brave young woman, but untested, and she wasn’t a fool. There was a correct course of action in this scenario, and he’d made it extremely clear.
“Swear,” she said, eyes moving between Vikram and the twitching, expiring young man twenty feet away.
“Of course,” Vikram said gently. “I’m not a monster. I just want to leave, that’s all. I need to access the radio in order to make that happen.”
She led him out towards the brig’s entrance. The guard station was a glassed in office that looked out on three sides, and contained various weaponry intended to subdue and disable. Also inside was the real prize, a desktop computer console. She looked hate at him as she palmed the scanner, no doubt believing that in doing so she was not allowing him the ability to cause any real trouble. That he was uninitiated in the NCOM, and wouldn’t expect her to use it to call for help just as soon as she was out of his immediate vision.
Once inside, he could tell that the area was soundproofed, probably as a courtesy to the duty shift in the case of noisy prisoners. It informed his next action. He waited until Gossett had made a few strides down the hall, drew back inside the guard station, and pulled the door almost all the way shut, leaving a gap large enough for him to fit his hand, and the pistol gripped in it.
He fired one shot directly into her back. She did not scream, or make any other vocalization, but fell unceremoniously forward on her face. Her body gave a few reflexive twitches, but they were death spasms, familiar to him from all the times he had witnessed Sergei at his sport.
He drew back inside and shut the door, letting the silent stillness fill his ears, his mind. He told the part of his mind that would remember this that it was not important, that there would be time enough to let the shame and guilt consume him when the work was done. His conscience could eat him alive after he had finished it, but for now he ordered it to wait.
At yet he could not avoid seeing through the glass door from the corner of his eye, the blood now spreading underneath young Sadie Gossett. He could not see her face from here, only the undignified sprawl that was her final attitude, feet akimbo, the way her legs settled into an unnatural angle so that the soles of her combat boots were turned upwards. She must be Rachel’s age, perhaps even a little younger.
Vikram went to the console, and opened up a log-in screen. He took a deep, shuddering breath and told his hands to stop shaking, to obey him. He had planned every move up until this point, and he could not fail now.
He entered the username and password he had devised while he had been leading Delaware around his memory. He’d kept him perfectly distracted, and the erstwhile captain had never suspected that a cut-and-paste version of himself had been kind enough to step out of the memory and furnish Vikram with an account, and a top NCOM clearance. It was waiting for him to activate it.
His finger hovered over the keyboard, his heart hammering in his chest, far more than when he’d subdued the two Marines. The enormity of the moment paralyzed him, and he had to draw deep, steady breaths to prevent him from experiencing a panic attack. His rational mind knew that the gunshot wouldn’t go unnoticed, and that he had a short window in which to deliver the true coup de grace.
He hit the “enter” key.
Then he staggered over to the waste basket, dropped to his knees and vomited up the excellent meal, retching until he was empty, until his throat burned. He collapsed on the floor, shivering and feverish, and imagined the impact of the cell door on his own neck as he’d delivered it to Sergeant Williams.
This was good, he decided, as he pressed his face against the floor. It was appropriate that he should not feel victorious in this moment. He wasn’t Sergei. He assumed the burden of his crimes in the knowledge that he had injured himself with every act of harm. But that time was coming to an end. He no longer had to lie. He no longer had to punish, to pass judgement.