"It truly is an honour to meet you Doctor Srinivasan. I've heard so much about your work..." the journalist gushed, his bleached hair falling over his wire-rimmed glasses as he jogged to keep up with me as I left the conference. He needed a touch-up. I could see a good four millimetres at least of dull brown regrowth that looked like it would be less of a clash with his caramel complexion than the sickly yellowish-white of his dye-job.
I noted his verb. So he'd 'heard' so much about my work. Interesting. I couldn't help but wonder if he had actually read a single paper of mine.
I doubted it. I increased my pace. Maybe if I walked fast enough, I'd be able to leave him in my dust. Maybe then he wouldn't ask me...
"So I was wondering, could we do an interview? I'd treat you to coffee? I know this really nice place nearby..."
I turned to face him, and signed at him, expression as blank as I could manage, before I turned away and kept walking. I knew for a fact that his lapel camera would pick that up. Maybe someone would even translate for him.
A small part of me felt that it was a shame I couldn't see his face when they did so.
I looked down at my watch, and saw the date.
Huh. Tomorrow it was three years to the day since the Incident. No wonder this stupid hack was chasing me around. It was fairly well-known that I was the sole survivor of the "attack" on Doctor Jacob's Institute. Some idiot paramedic had tipped off the media, and I'd barely woken up from my four day coma before I was being harassed. Come to think of it, it'd been a camera flash from some rogue photo-journalist that had jerked me out of my unconsciousness.
Apparently it'd been a slow news week.
At first I'd hoped that the fact that I speak solely in sign would have been enough to ward off the journos, but unfortunately someone had got it into their head that I was interesting.
I didn't think the fact that I couldn't vocalise was interesting at all. Yes, it was a consistent source of frustration and communication breakdown, the reason why I was never without at least three pens and a small notepad, and a constant reminder that tracheotomies performed by overconfident fools can irreparably damage the vocal chords, but no, I did not think it made me in any way, shape or form special or interesting.
If they wanted to ask me about my work, then I would happily conduct an online interview with them. If they wanted to harass me about one nightmarish day that had happened three years ago, then they could go and boil their heads, as far as I was concerned.
It wasn't as though I really knew what had happened anyway.
"Oh come on, Doc, would it kill you to give me at least a decent sound bite?" the bleached journo complained, thin lips pouting and snub nose wrinkling at me.
I paused, and looked at him, allowing exactly what I thought of him for making that sort of comment to pass across my features.
"Shit. You're right, that was stupid," he said, wincing, and immediately changing tack, apparently making an appeal to the (mythical, if you believed the rumours) better part of my personality. "I'm sorry, okay? It's just that I really need this story. Please?"
For a moment, when he was giving me the puppy eyes through his glasses, he reminded me of Caspian, and I felt like I'd been punched in the gut.
Even after all these years... I'd given up on the idea that it would stop hurting. Sometimes I would go entire days without thinking about him, but then something would remind me...
The pain had dulled a little over the years, but it still took my breath away.
I sighed. Now I needed that coffee. It was that or alcohol, and I'd promised myself I'd stop ruining my liver like that.
That and turning up to work with a hangover was a bitch. It's hard to collect data when your brain feels like it's going to throb out of your skull.
It wasn't as though I really wanted to go home anyway. My flat needed cleaning, and at this time of year, when the rains came, it always smelt of mould, no matter how much incense I burnt.
The journo must have noticed my change in body language, because he asked me if I'd changed my mind.
I nodded, and he grinned, so that his face was all shiny white teeth and glasses.
Ten minutes later, I was sitting in a cracked, cobalt-coloured, linoleum-lined booth, wondering if this had been a good idea after all.
Whoever had told this journo that I could be bribed with a good chocolate cake had been doing well. Delicious delicious chocolate cake... it even had a few cherries on top. I'd have to make sure I came back here next time I was in the area.
"So, uh, Doctor Srinivasan..."
I looked up from my cake at the journo, and gestured for him to continue.
"Why did you agree to this interview?"
I pull out my notepad. You remind me of someone. Don't ask me who. I don't feel like dredging up ancient history. I write.
The journo looks surprised.
"Really? Huh. Okay. I guess I can work with that," he mutters to himself.
I roll my eyes and write again. Keep in mind that I am not deaf. Botched tracheotomies do not affect the ears.
The journo blushes. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be rude. I talk to myself all the time. It's just a bad habit I've got into. So uh..." he cleared his throat. "What do you want to talk about?"
I frowned. What the hell kind of journalist was this anyway?
What is your name, and who do you work for? I asked him.
"Oh, uh," he coughed nervously. "I'm, uh. I'm..."
This was a waste of my time. I looked at my watch, then swore with my hands. There is somewhere I need to be right now. My email is at... I wrote it down for him, tearing off the sheet, before getting up to leave.
"No! Don't go!" He paled suddenly. "There's something I have to tell-"
He was interrupted as the doors of the cafe were suddenly kicked in. Dark-coloured uniforms with bullet proof vests and helmets clomped inside, ignoring the protests that were made from a few of the cafe-goers as their coffees were spilled. The protests stopped as soon as it became clear that the uniforms came with what looked like the contents of a gun shop.
Somebody's toddler started to cry, and one of the uniforms snarled at the mother, telling her to shut her kid up.
Somehow I had a bad feeling about this.
Slowly, I eased myself back down into my seat. Looking across the table, and I blinked in surprise.
The journo was gone.
The only evidence that he'd ever even been there was his untouched coffee mug.
"Right, now listen up!" One of the fancier uniforms stepped forward, waving his badge around. "We're looking for a number of dangerous individuals. Recent reports indicated that they were last seen in this vicinity. For your own safety, if you've seen any of these individuals pictured here," he waved around a document covered in colour photos, "I need you to tell us now."
For our own safety, huh? Part of me couldn't help but wonder about that wording. The uniform hadn't indicated why our safety would be endangered. I barely controlled a flinch when I spotted the bleached journo's face in amongst the images. Shit.
It was, of course at this point that a woman wearing orange plastic earrings yelled, "I just saw that one! That man! He was sitting in that booth over there!"
She pointed over at me with a lurid fake nail, and suddenly the entire cafe was staring at me.
I sighed in exasperation. Why couldn't they all have been too interested in their own business to notice us?
What? I signed at them. I have no fucking clue who he was either.
For some reason my gestures caused several of the uniforms to point their guns at me.
"Freeze!" One of them yelled at me, unclicking his safety.
What the hell? I stared at them, completely incredulous. What did they think I was doing?
I looked down at my notepad, then looked up at the uniforms. Dare I reach for it?
Considering the fact that two more safeties clicked off when I moved my head, I couldn't help but think I should wait this out until sanity decided to return.
"What is your name, civilian?"
I flinched instinctively. I hadn't been called 'civilian' since...
My thought was interrupted by the sight of yet more guns training themselves on me.
I was still wearing my conference name tag, so I jerked my head in the general direction of it.
One of the uniforms stepped closer.
"Sir, the name tag says 'Doctor Srinivasan', sir," he said. "It's from that conference across the road."
The fancy uniform scowled. "You some sort of scientist are you Doctor?" he said, spitting the words 'scientist' and 'Doctor' like they were vile epithets.
Warily, I nodded. Well, technically I was a Doctor of Philosophy of Science, but I couldn't be bothered to nitpick on the difference between the types of academic.
"What's wrong Doctor? Cat got your tongue?"
Oh for fuck's sake. If I had a dollar for every time I'd heard that one...
At least he wasn't calling me Mousey, I thought darkly, shuddering a little despite myself at the memory. Apparently today was determined to drag up my traumatic memories of... then.
Slowly, I tipped my head back to look at the ceiling, so that my scarf was no longer hiding the scarring on my throat.
One of the uniforms standing closer to me cleared his throat then.
"Uh, sir? I don't think Doctor Srinivasan can talk sir."
I looked back at him and nodded vehemently, relieved.
The fancy suit's scowl deepened. "You aren't paid to think." He stopped, and then suddenly swore viciously. Out the corner of my eye I could see the mother of the toddler putting her hands over its ears.
"Are you the Doctor Srinivasan who was the sole survivor of the Cooke Institute incident a few years back?" he demanded.
I nodded, still keeping my hands in the air, ignoring the gasps, confused noises and general mutterings that came from the other cafe-goers.
"Are you the Doctor Srinivasan who wrote Experimental Ethics and Paranormal Powers?"
I nodded again, this time more reluctantly. I'd written that paper a good five years ago for my doctoral thesis, and I'd never ceased to regret it since. I'd written the thesis from a purely theoretical perspective- I didn't actually believe that there was such a thing as psychic abilities when I'd written the paper. To my surprise at the time, it had had some small success as a book when I published it. After some of the events at the Cooke Institute Incident had come to light, I had to wonder...
If I'd known then what I do now...
Well, no use trying to reason retroactively.
"Are you the Doctor Srinivasan who was involved with Casper..."
Forgetting the guns, I swore at him using my hands. His name was Caspian, you uneducated idiot. Caspian, like the Sea, not Casper like the ghost! C-A-S-P-I-A-N. Get it right! And what do you mean 'involved'? I was married to the man!
The fancy uniform looked taken aback at my wild hand gestures.
"Okay, I take it you know that was a trick question." He paused, looking uncertain. "Does anyone here understand sign?" he asked.
I looked pointedly at my notepad, sitting there on the table in front of me, and then pointedly at the guns that were still pointed at me.
Understanding dawned on the fancy uniform's face.
"Weapons down. Doctor Srinivasan, would you be willing to come to our base and answer a few questions?" he asked me.
I shrugged, letting a sardonic smile creep across my face. They had guns, and this guy seemed to know who I was, and so no doubt would be able to track me down in any case. Did I really have a choice?
Evidently my shrug was taken as acquiescence, as fancy uniform gave an order to his underlings.
Before I could blink, me and my notepad had been hustled into the back of a van, and we were driving away.
I don't know what made me look out the window then, but I looked back at the cafe, I suddenly saw the bleached journo, the one that these uniforms had been asking about, the one who had bought me coffee and cake, standing not ten metres away.
Our eyes met, and he smiled at me sadly, mouthing "sorry" at me.
I raised my eyebrows at him. I was sure that whatever the hell was going on I'd be able to get out of it. I hadn't done anything wrong, I wasn't involved in anything even remotely shady, and if I was, I didn't know squat about it.
Surely this was just going to be an inconvenience. I'd be completely upfront with them, it'd all get sorted out, and then they'd let me go home to my mouldy flat, where I'd have an evening of reading amateur speculative fiction online and eating nachos with homemade guacamole.
A distinct sense of foreboding began to creep into the corners of my mind.
That sense of foreboding only increased as the van continued to drive. Though I'd lived in this city for a good eight years, within twenty minutes we'd left the boundaries of my mental map, and within thirty the van had turned around enough that my internal compass was feeling a bit wonky too.
The grim faces of the uniforms did little to improve my confidence. The interior van was completely silent, apart from the occasional cough and the soft hiss of the air conditioning, and the thick, tinted (probably bulletproof) glass in the windows let little of the traffic noises from outside in.
If I had functioning vocal cords, now would have been the point where I'd crack some sort of stupid joke, to break the ice and make myself feel more comfortable.
As it was, reaching for a pen from my pocket was enough to cause the atmosphere in the van to abruptly tense, as every uniform inside gripped their guns more tightly.
It was as though they expected me to pull a weapon on them at any moment. If it hadn't been for the fact that they were jumpy enough to shoot me for doing so, I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of the situation.
For goodness' sake, I'm a Doctor of Philosophy, I wanted to tell them. I might be left wing, but that certainly didn't mean that I was a militant anarchist. Considering I was wearing a five year old tweed suit and thick glasses, I certainly didn't think I fit any kind of stereotype for some sort of deranged terrorist.
Directly across from me, a female uniform glared at me in the same way I imagined a jaguar might glare at a man with a spear, stroking her rifle as though it were some sort of pet attack python.
It was deeply unnerving. I tried to prevent myself from cringing, but I'm sure I was unsuccessful.
Eventually, the van pulled up at a set of security gates, and the driver, having muttered something indistinct through the intercom, soon passed through gates that could have easily belonged to a fortress or prison.
The gates came together in a rattling clang behind us, and a few of the uniforms relaxed a fraction. And by fraction, I'm talking like a tenth of a percent. They were still looking at me like I was some kind of terrorist.
Five minutes later, and I'd been escorted down a bland, labyrinthine corridor to a room that was distinctive only in its indistinctness. The walls were a dull white. The floor was cheap grey linoleum. In the middle of the room, there was a metal table bolted to the floor, with a bracket that was clearly designed to accommodate handcuffs, surrounded by four chairs, that were likewise bolted to the floor. In the corner of the ceiling, there was a surveillance camera, pointed directly at the chair facing the door, and it was this chair that I was ushered into.
I was then left to stew.
They closed the door behind them as they left, and I heard it automatically lock behind them.
If these uniforms had intended to intimidate me, this was overkill.
The only things that encouraged me were the facts that I hadn't been searched for weapons (I had a small pocket knife that I kept for cutting up apples for lunch that they no doubt would have taken from me), and that I wasn't handcuffed.
Otherwise, I was starting to think that maybe I should have taken my chances with refusing back in the cafe.
To keep myself from fretting, I took out my notepad, and began to sketch a stereotypical rustic scene. This sort of sketch was a common one whenever I was feeling anxious, as it brought to mind half-remembered holidays at my grandparents' farm out west, one of the few times of my life that I remembered feeling truly relaxed. First the buckled corrugated iron cowshed, then the barbed wire fences, and then the paddocks, with their rough skyline, thistles and spinifex. Whimsically, I added a cloud in the shape of a boot, and a boy in the universal uniform of Australian farmers- jeans, flanny, akubra and work-boots, leading a Hereford by a halter. I drew his sister a little ways off, feeding a few chickens.
I was about to add a pond with the obligatory lily pads when the door suddenly opened, and two stereotypes walked in.
One was a smiling woman in shiny, black, spiky heels and a suit that was far smarter looking than my own. I generally wasn't one to pay attention to these sorts of things, but something about the way she held herself in it told me that it was an expensive label. Or it might have been the string of freshwater pearls hanging from her neck, or the diamond-studded watch on her wrist. Any of these things might have clued me in. She sat down carefully, keeping her back straight and her head erect, as though she were some sort of beauty queen, and her meticulously applied make-up and carefully coiffed hair only reinforced this impression.
The other was a man in a fancy uniform identical to the one worn by the 'boss' of the uniforms that had escorted me here. It wasn't the same man, but it took me a moment to realise, as apart from this man being a little taller, with a slightly stronger nose and greyer hair, he had practically the same posture, build and scowl.
I'd seen enough cop dramas on TV to have an inkling of what they were supposed to represent, but something about the woman's vampiric smile told me that she was the more dangerous of the two. At least the uniform would give me a moment's warning before he went for the jugular, and he'd feel like he was simply doing his duty. I couldn't put my finger on what it was that told me, but she emitted vibes that implied that she'd do it just to see the artistic blood spray.
Slowly, I folded my sketch behind the notepad, and wrote in large print what I'd been wanting to ask since the uniforms had interrupted my coffee.
Would somebody care to fill me in as to what the hell is going on?
I held up the message, and waited.
The uniform's scowl deepened slightly, whereas the woman giggled behind her hand like a geisha.
"Oh dear, there's no need to swear, darling," she said in a tone that implied she thought I was mentally impaired. "We just want to ask you a few questions."
I scribbled some more. I gathered that. Obviously. What I do not know is why an armed escort was required, or why I have been taken to what is obviously an interrogation room. I am unaware of anything that I might be involved with that would require the Gestapo re-enactment. If you just had some questions an email might have sufficed. If this had to be face to face, I could have contacted my interpreter, and so I wouldn't have had to raise the suspicions of my armed escort by reaching for my "deadly" ballpoint pen.
The woman merely laughed, as though my sarcasm was the funniest thing she had ever encountered, but interestingly, the uniform looked a little uncomfortable. I couldn't tell whether it was something that I said, or the fact that I'd made the woman laugh.
I wouldn't have been willing to put my money on either way.
"Oh dear, I suppose our security must seem just a teensy bit dramatic to a civilian such as yourself," the woman trilled. "But honestly, it's for your own protection."
I almost gaped at her. Guns being pointed at me was 'for my own protection'? I'd slipped into some sort of parallel universe where logic was inverted, I was sure of it.
I stared at her for a moment, before I wrote, Nice try, lady. In case you were unaware, I have a doctorate in Philosophy.
She looked at me, nonplussed.
That means that among other things, I can quote Kant, delineate theses and I am quite accomplished at telling when someone is feeding me bullshit, I wrote.
The uniform snorted at that, seemingly despite himself and the woman glared at the both of us.
What is this about? I'm here. It was said you had questions. Ask me. Then let me go home. I wrote. I was trying to be firm, but I had a feeling that it was coming out more plaintive.
"I'm afraid we aren't going to be able to do that," said the uniform, speaking for the first time.
Won't be able to do what?
The way the woman's smile returned when I wrote that didn't imbue me with confidence.
"We won't be able to allow you to return home," said the uniform.
I dropped my pen then, but I'm sure my expression pretty eloquently said what I thought about that. Something along the lines of, "Excuse me, but WHAT?!"
The woman cut back in. "I believe you know why," she said.
I snatched my pen back off the floor and as calmly as I could wrote, No, I don't. All I know is that an hour ago I was having coffee with some journalist, when you people showed up. Looking for him. And then you decided that since he'd seemingly vanished into thin air that I was who you wanted as some sort of consolation prize. Now, I would like to know what the hell is going on. Please.
The uniform and the woman both looked at my answer.
Looked at each other.
"You are the Doctor Srinivasan who wrote Experimental Ethics and Paranormal Powers, aren't you?" asked the woman.
I failed to see the relevance. What's a theoretical paper I wrote half a decade ago got to do with anything? I asked them, looking from one to the other.
The expression on the woman's face was incredulous.
"What's..." she paused, as though something had just occurred to her. "Doctor, you were the only survivor of the Incident at Doctor Jacob's Institute... how long had you been working there?"
I gave her an odd look, and picked up my pen again.
What do you mean, working there? I'd been invited there by one of Doctor Jacob's research assistants to come see something. Freya Suliman. That was her name. She was one of my ex-students from my Ethics course. She used to stay back after class to chat. I hadn't heard from her in over a year, and then one day she invited me to come and see what she was working on. She said something about thinking that I'd find it particularly interesting. I had nothing better to do that day, and I was in the area, so I went in that day to oblige her.
The woman and the uniform exchanged a significant look that was completely lost on me, though they seemed to be somewhat surprised. The woman then reached forward, ripped off the sheets of my notepad that included my end of the dialogue, and then got up unceremoniously and left the room.
I looked at the uniform, and silently asked him what the hell just happened.
"I'm sorry Doctor Srinivasan. There appears to have been a mistake made somewhere," he said, leaning back in his chair and visibly relaxing now that the woman had gone. "No doubt Rachel's left just now to go tear Research new assholes."
I just looked at him, bewildered.
"Oh, I'm sorry. We never did introduce ourselves, did we. That was Major Rachel Quint, and I'm Captain Nicholas Goldberg," he said.
So they were military. That or pretending hard enough that the difference was academic.
Nice to meet you, I wrote, not meaning a word of it. I thought for a moment. Are you Jewish?
Goldberg looked at me strangely. "Yes, why?"
I shrugged. Just making conversation. I didn't mean anything by it, good or bad.
Goldberg shrugged non-committally, but didn't say anything. Apparently I hadn't offended him, or he'd already moved on.
I decided I'd try again for information.
Could you please tell me what the hell is going on here? Who are you people, and what do you want from me? Why did you say before that I couldn't go home, and if there's been a mistake, does that mean that I can leave?
My handwriting was becoming messier.
Goldberg read my note, the skin between his eyebrows creasing a little and corners of his mouth tightening. For some reason the voice of my mother muttering about being careful about what emotion you etched onto your face rang in my head.
He looked up then, and studied me intently, looking me up and down.
I did my best not to flinch or look guilty, in spite of the fact that as far as I knew I had done nothing. I hadn't felt an assessing glare like that since the time I'd tipped a tub of wood glue onto Dahlia Johannsen's head back in year four. I wasn't sure if that said more about me, Goldberg, or my fourth grade teacher Ms. Kleine.
For one ridiculous moment, I pictured Goldberg in Ms. Kleine's favourite shapeless, obnoxiously floral dress.
The thought cheered me up immensely, and before I could stop it, a grin bloomed across my face.
"What's so funny?" Goldberg demanded, looking at me oddly.
I shrugged, then wrote, I just remembered something. Nothing important.
Looking at me suspiciously, Goldberg cleared his throat.
"Well, seeing as you do not appear to know anything, we cannot hold you here any longer. But keep in mind that we'll be watching you, Doctor."
I could feel my eyebrows arching into my hairline.
What the hell? So after all that, they were going to let me go without an explanation?
I wrote as much on my notepad, and Goldberg said something about security clearances. It was at this point that I demanded to see his ID, something I should have done with the first uniform.
For some reason Goldberg decided to humour me, retrieving a wallet from a breast pocket and then showing me.
I learnt two things from that ID.
The first was that Goldberg's middle name was Aloysius.
The second was that the group he was attached to was part of the government, but I didn't recognise the acronym. It figured. Last time I'd checked, paramilitary associations were severely frowned upon in this country. It only made sense that this one was part of the organisation that tended to do the frowning.
Hypocritical really, but muteness aside, I wasn't about to open my mouth to point such a thing out.
Instead I wrote on my notepad, So, are you going to let me go now or what?
Goldberg just nodded, and a few minutes later, I'd been frogmarched out the gate, and then into a taxi that someone must have called. The taxi smelt vaguely of old vomit and cigarette smoke, and the seat was vaguely sticky from a substance I decided I'd rather not know the origin of. I wrote down my address and showed it to the driver, and he merely grunted at me.
All in all it was an improvement from having guns pointed at me, and so I decided that the rudeness was liveable.