Elliott swallowed hard. The numbers were familiar.
They formed the death date on his uncle’s gravestone. A little circle swirled
in the display’s center. The device background shifted from a dark sky to a
flat black backdrop and a bold NSA logo in the middle. Just below it was a
single app. The device selected it on its own.
He tensed for an explosion, but all that happened was
a video began playing. Or rather, not quite a true video, but a system view
where a video player was part of a console of some sort.
A synthetic voice spoke, “Session
Elliott almost dropped the tablet. It was loud enough
Lara would easily hear from where she stood several feet away.
On the screen a diligent caravan of text scrolled
below the video feed.
Subject — Parsons, Shane Matthew.
Facilitator: Amar, Hain Aaron
2039-11-21 19:04:12.483 EST.”
More text scrolled by, but Elliott missed it. The video
feed showed Agent Amar, wearing a burgundy dress shirt and dark suit sitting
down opposite Elliott’s roommate, Shane. His best friend.
After a brief adjustment of the camera angle, Shane
came into sharp focus. He was shaking and looked haggard. Dark circles were
under his eyes and his face was pale. A dark welt ran along his jawline.
What have they
done to you?
Agent Amar smiled at Shane and folded his hands on the
table in front of him. “Welcome back to the real world, Mr. Parsons. Your last
session was quite illuminating.”
Shane didn’t answer. His eyes darted, taking in the
room with an anxious energy.
“In our first meeting, you insisted you have had no
contact with wanted fugitives Elliott Calhoun and John McIntyre. Correct?”
Shane didn’t answer.
Subject’s blood pressure and heart rate elevated.”
Agent Amar tilted his head and began drumming his
fingers on the table. As if struck, Shane winced and said, “I did.”
“Say I hadn’t spoken to him. To Elliott. And John. I
Amar nodded and peered down at display next to him. He
Retrieving experience index for Parsons, Shane Matthew last simulation.”
From the way Amar relaxed into his seat, he must have
been pleased with whatever the report said. “Yet, we have records of a call
from Mr. Calhoun to you hours before your apartment complex burned down. What
was your roommate calling you about?”
Shane grew pale.
Subject sweating profusely. Previously observed nervous tics commenced. Advise
continuation of question line.”
“Come on, Shane. What was he calling about? The first
time we had you in, you said he just called about pizza. Was it about dinner
again? Was it to let you know he wouldn’t be back for a few days?”
“Yeah. Just checking in,” Shane answered, easing his
“So, you wish to amend your previous statement on
record that he didn’t call you?”
“Wait, no. I mean. You said he called about the
“Did I? Shouldn’t you know? Or are you having trouble
holding to your story?”
Subject heart rate spike. Evidence of adrenal flight response. Advise agent
caution. Approved use of aggression to restrain subject as necessary.”
“I’m not telling a story! He did call and then he
didn’t call. I’m not a traitor.”
“You’re not a traitor? Is Mr. Calhoun?”
“I wouldn’t be here if he wasn’t, right?”
“And have you ever observed any odd behavior from Mr.
Calhoun to confirm your suspicions?”
“I don’t know…”
Shane’s knee bounced up and down like a jackhammer.
“Uh, yeah! The week he disappeared. I saw him trying to go into another
apartment unit. He was acting a little weird.”
“Yeah! That’s the one.”
“That was the site of the fire’s start. Did you notice
“His cousin, John, started calling him a whole lot
leading up to it. Which is weird, because he never really called before.”
“Interesting. Would you characterize Mr. Calhoun as
being violent or unstable?”
“Elliott? No. He never—”
“Could anything have provoked him? Sudden changes in
campus or personal life?”
Subject blood pressure and pulse normalizing. Maximum window of cooperative
“Well, rumor has it he was just expelled from his art
program for plagiarizing some artist’s work.”
“Mm. Anything else?”
“His, uh, girlfriend might have been cheating on him.
I called her looking for him and heard another guy on the phone. It was kind of
late, so you know…”
“Interesting you bring up his girlfriend. Are you
aware Ms. Hopewell has been missing for roughly as long as Mr. Calhoun?”
Shane averted his gaze and rubbed his hands on the
table in listless circles. Biting his lip, he said, “No. No, I wasn’t.”
“There’s something else, isn’t there, Shane? Something
you’ve been reluctant to share, before now?”
Subject heart rate fluctuating. Polygraphic assessment initiated.”
“I guess so. It’s just. He’s always been my boy. I
never would have thought…Yeah. He called me a while back. Wanted some cash
and a ride out of state. Said he’d messed things up.”
“Did you help him?”
“Well, yeah. I sent him the money. I just thought he
meant he had trouble with Lara.”
Subject polygraphic examination complete. Verified as truthful statements.
Subject confessed to aiding and abetting a wanted fugitive. Notifying booking
staff and cell unit of impending arrest.”
Amar stood. “I believe you.” He walked around the
table with a slow purposeful gait. Shane just stared at the table, his
expression haunted. Once behind Shane, Amar slipped out a pair of cuffs. In a
quick series of moves, he pushed Shane’s head down into the table, grabbed both
hands, and cuffed them behind his back. “Shane Parsons, you’re under arrest for
aiding and abetting a known traitor to the United States. You have the right to
The rest of Agent Amar’s Miranda recitation was
drowned out by Shane wailing and thrashing. Another system note chimed in, but
it too was lost in the shrieks. Just before Shane was drug out of the room by
trio of brutish looking officers, he shouted, “He’s the traitor! I’ll tell you
anything. Get him! Get him!”
The app closed. Sudden silence jerked Elliott back to
where he was with as much easing as crashing into a brick wall. He felt as if
his entire torso had imploded.
A hand on his back made him jump. Whirling around he found
Lara standing there, teary eyed. One hand was still held out as if to say,
For several seconds Elliott just stared at her trying
to get ahold of his suddenly jagged breathing. “They turned him against me,” he
said. “Those things he said. They’re not even true.”
Lara drew closer, put her arms around him and laid her
head against his chest. “He was just protecting himself. Or thought he was,”
“No, it’s worse. I saw his eyes. He believed it.
Somehow they made him believe it.”
Brett Armstrong has been exploring other worlds as a writer since age nine. Years later, he still writes, but now invites others along on his excursions. He’s shown readers hauntingly sorrowful historical fiction (Destitutio Quod Remissio), scary-real dystopian sci-fi (Day Moon and Veiled Sun), and dark, sweeping epic fantasy (Quest of Fire). Where he heads next is as much a discovery for him as readers. Through dark, despair, light, joy, and everything in between, the end is always meant to leave his fellow literary explorers with wonder and hope.