Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Gray Matter

*Part six of a nine-part entry in the River of Mnemosyne challenge at The Tenth Daughter of Memory (it's also an entry in the weekly Magpie Tales event).

*continued from Heaven and Hell

An American, a Frenchman, and a Brit tie a Russian to a tree. Only this is not a joke.

The American, Argent, sees nothing but a man who should be killed. A few days ago, Kuznetsov twice pointed a gun at Argent's head. Kuznetsov also failed to punish one of his men for raping Rossella. The fact that Juin killed the rapist does not figure into Argent's calculations. The Russian will die. It's only a matter of when.

"When this is over," Argent starts, almost whispering, "I'm going to kill you."

Juin gives Argent a sharp and scolding look, and the silent command is understood. Argent feigns defiance for a moment, then leaves the scene, off to find and comfort Rossella as well as he can... and as much as she'll let him. Juin can't blame Argent for how the younger American feels. Regardless of the heinous act, everyone knows that Argent fell for the Italian almost at first sight, and has since felt protective of her. He is hopelessly smitten. That she has yet to return any such inclination is beside the point.

As Margerison double-checks the knots holding Kuznetsov, the Frenchman finds himself unable to take his mind off of the tree. It is a black poplar, common in this part of Europe, and though it stands nearly 60 feet tall, Juin gets the impression that this particular tree has been in this particular spot for only a few days. Perhaps the impression is a result of Elona's story, but he can't shake the feeling that her story is irrelevant. He is standing in rebirth and he can feel it. It is a strange and wondrous notion, stained only by the fact that they are about to interrogate - and possibly torture - a man who is possibly one of the last humans alive on the planet.

"What are you going to do?" Kuznetsov asks, his voice devoid of fear. "Hit me?"

Margerison smiles a smile borne of reflex and absent of humor. "Just going to ask you a few questions."

Kuznetsov, again without emotion, responds, "And I need to be tied to a tree for this?"

The Brit shrugs and finishes with the knots. He walks in front of the Russian and sits cross-legged on the grass, appearing as comfortable as a man on a picnic. "It's your fault you lied about who you really are; not ours. You going to cooperate?"

The Russian smirks. "Maybe."

"Don't be an idiot, mate. There's an angry American over there who's waiting to beat the shit out of you. And we both know what happens when angry Americans start intervening in things."

"Is this the famous 'good cop, bad cop' routine from your movies?"

Margerison spits, an ignominious act meant to reflect the Russian's attitude. The Brit has endless patience, but he needs to convince Kuznetsov that he most certainly does not. "I'm the only copper here. And you're going to tell me what we need to know, or I'm going to let that American kill you."


"When it comes to interrogation, candidates, the brain is malleable. A proper interrogation makes the subject learn. Or, at least, think he's learning."

Margerison remembers the words of his instructor. There is no more effective means of gathering evidence than having subjects tell on themselves. Confessions are the ultimate prize, of course, but there is danger in acquiring one too quickly. Too many criminals watch too many movies and think that sending police on wild fox hunts is a charming thing to do.

"Brainwashing, then?" Margerison asked. The instructor squinted his eyes and shook his head, deceptively surprised that someone had bothered to attempt an analogy. Margerison was on the right track, but no, interrogation was not brainwashing.

"Not exactly, Detective Sergeant. There are some similarities, but we are not brainwashing. This isn't convincing a three-year old child that God or Santa Claus are real."

There was nervous laughter at the instructor's joke, most of the students unwilling to equate their beliefs to any sort of brainwashing, but Margerison understood completely.

"That stated, as in brainwashing, it is the malleable nature of the human mind that allows interrogation techniques to work. The brain is nothing but gray matter. Pewter. Capable of being shaped and formed into something useful to hands willing to work it."

It was then that Margerison's imagination began to swirl in earnest. In his mind, a hollow pewter sphere filled with water. The water, information he needed; the pewter, his subject. Form a spout, and the water can be poured right out.

That Detective Sergeant Margerison graduated at the top of his class was no accident. It was also no accident that Margerison wound up in the most feared interrogation unit in the British Army.


Argent sits on a rocky hillside, overlooking the fresh landscape that was once Trieste. On any other day, he'd have been captivated by the beauty. Today, however, he just stares at Rossella, who cries in the arms of Elona roughly 40-feet below. He doesn't even hear Calvin approach.

The two Americans have known each other for several years, from boot camp to infantry school; airborne school to reassignments. In their ten years in the Army, the longest they've been apart has been a mere seven months. Despite entirely different upbringings - Calvin from an upper-middle class family and a perpetual honors student; Argent from the lower-middle class and lucky to have graduated - the two became fast friends. They share conniving, calculating natures, and their fellow soldiers often joked that the two were the men behind the curtain, despite their relatively low ranks. Over the years, their sense of privacy no longer applied to each other, and they were closer than most brothers.

"You hearing this shit?" Calvin asks, purposefully sidestepping what he knows is Argent's primary concern. "Yardy's got that dude singing like a bird."

Argent blinks, momentarily returning to reality. "A yardbird," he utters, his quick wit practically an involuntary response.

"Page and Plant, baby."

"A zeppelin made of lead."

There is quiet laughter. Calvin sighs relief, knowing that his friend is okay. The two men continue to sit in silence, one staring at the rolling waves of the Adriatic. The other... secretly longing for the love of an Italian woman who currently has no reason for any emotion other than hate.


The party can't believe what they're hearing as Margerison proceeds to retell everything Kuznetsov told him. The Russian remains tied to the tree and is soundly asleep. Interrogation is an exhausting process, after all, for both the subject and the interrogator. Indeed, the Brit appears more tired than the others can remember him, particularly Elona.

Margerison explains that Marciszewski was one of the original scientists involved with the project, compensated greatly by the Russian government to create what Kuznetsov calls the Imagination Machine. Once the Pole realized that the Russians wanted the machine for weapons design - perhaps Marciszewski was a bit naive - he formulated the plan to spread the technology to the other world powers in the hopes that, like the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, nations would be hesitant to use such weapons against each other.

Something, however, went wrong. What exactly, even Kuznetsov doesn't know, but the end result was a proliferation of machines that set about the world with their singular purposes, whatever those purposes may have been. Clearly, most of the machines were tasked with killing humans.

For the next part of the tale, Margerison seems to brighten. In addition to smuggling the technology out of Russia, Marciszewski tasked a small group of scientists to prepare a hidden laboratory whose sole purpose was to design and test devices that could override and deactivate the machines. The remote Rossella hides closely to her body, underneath her clothing, is one of the first of such devices. There is general hope that there are more.

"Where is this laboratory?" Juin asks, impatient to get going. He prays that it is not overseas somewhere.

Margerison shrugs. "Only Marciszewski knew," An overwhelming deflation sweeps across the group, "but Kuznetsov seems to think it's in Rome."

Juin shoulders his sniper rifle. "Then what are we waiting for?"

Margerison and the others stand, and the Brit nods. "I agree, but there's a problem."

The question comes in the form of anticipating stares.

"Someone, it seems, designed some machines specifically to find this lab." The Brit's words seem innocuous enough, but as they sink in their implication becomes terrifying. Even in the brightest sunlight they can remember, there is a sensation of skies going dark.

"Mon Dieu," whispers the Frenchman, crossing himself.

"God's got nothing to do with this," Margerison exclaims.

Juin glares at the Brit. Now is not the time for theological discourse. "My God does."

To the others, mostly agnostics, the concepts are just more shades of gray in a world where blacks and whites no longer exist.

"How about we begin moving?" Elona interjects, not wanting to waste any more time. To her, time is the one resource they seem to have ample amounts of, but never enough time to use. She almost laughs at the thought, correspondingly confusing and profound. But she will save the pop culture philosophizing for later, when being alive matters less. "We can reach Rome in two weeks."

"What about him?" Calvin asks of Kuznetsov.

"Bring him," Elona replies. "He may be useful."

Behind Calvin, Argent embraces Rossella - more for his comfort than hers - whispering encouragement into her ear. Though outwardly calm and deliberate, his eyes betray a different state. Elona notices the young man's internal malice and knows there is nothing to be done. They can't leave Kuznetsov and they won't leave Argent. It is only a matter of time before the calm gives way to storm.

Elona hopes that they can survive the weather.

*continued in Upon Reflections


Baino said...

Really enjoying this and thinking of a cast of actors for your characters. It might take a while. I'm feeling like I'm watching episodes of "Lost" only a little more cerebral. If that Russian gets away I'll be . . a little cross.

Brian Miller said...

i like the levity woven into this one...it plays well against what you have already written. as if we are gearing up for the final push...

Tess Kincaid said...

I like the way you skillfully wove that pewter into your story, Jeff. Well done, my friend!

She Writes said...

Naturally, I want to know--what happens to the couple?

I look forward to seeing what you do with the characters in this.

Nessa said...

The mystery of Argent's grandfather is poking at me. i can tell lots of exciting things are about to happen. Exciting.

Tom said...

i'm glad you explained the robots a bit...purposeless robots are a nuisance.

Ronda Laveen said...

Nice two-fer...not easy to do! I was wondering why there was possibly only one human...sheesh. Kind of scary. Nice use of pewter and gray matter.

Also, loved the Yardbird/Page/Plant/Zeppelin ref!

Bitsy said...

Fine for a transition piece.

sarahjayne smythe said...

I love the rhythm of your prose. It's such a staccato flow it carries me along. And your dialogue is just spot on. I can hear it.

PattyF said...

Love the way you sneaked the pewter into this!

She Writes said...

"A proper interrogation makes the subject learn. Or, at least, think he's learning."

Makes me shudder.

chiccoreal said...

Superlative excerpt from the novel "Gray Matter". Intense interaction of characters, richly defined. I particularly enjoyed the interaction between the male/female characters. This is a brilliant line which displays much sensitivity; "more for his comfort than his". The spy genre, as per Flemming, mixed with a bit of sci-fi as per HG Wells. Professionally written and artistically conceived. Please let me know when I can purchase your novel!

chiccoreal said...

"more for her comfort than his" please excuse MY glaring typo. You are a writer par excellence. A throughly enjoyable read. More!

Dot-Com said...

When does the filming begin!? I was happy to find someone had actually written a good long blog post. I'm bored at the airport. The usual...

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