Drying Out

It was dark where he woke up.

The last thing he could remember, it had been dark, and then bright lights. And now he was sitting upright, in a chair somewhere. In the dark.

He could hear machinery; an electric motor whining, a pump hissing. He felt the cloth on his face, felt his breath against it, flowing hot over his skin. He tried to move, couldn’t. His arms, strapped down at the wrist and the elbow. His legs, tied at the ankle, a strap constraining his thighs. There was a bag on his head. Why was there a bag on his head?

Agitated, he tried to move, to shake the blindfold or the potato sack or whatever had been stuffed on his head off. The chair he was in was solid, didn’t rock even an inch. Something, somewhere, began to bleep. The whine of the motor increased, the pump hissed in and out a little faster. He tried to swallow, couldn’t. There was a disgusting taste in his mouth, and he felt more thirsty than he had ever been.

“Tell us” said a voice from outside the bag. “Where have you been?”

He tried to speak, could only croak. His throat was dry, parched. His head thumped as though his heart had swapped position with his brain. He was incredibly hot, yet he couldn’t feel a single bead of sweat anywhere on his body.

“Tell us. It is important.”

He coughed.

“What have you been doing, Gray? Who have you been talking to?”

He groaned; his lips were so dry it was an effort for him to part them. “Water” he rasped.

“What was that?” The voice was closer. He couldn’t discern an accent; the voice was muffled – probably just from whatever bag had been stuck on his head.

“Water” he repeated.

“No, I don’t think that would be such a good idea, would it?”

“So … thirsty.”

“You are aware of the concept of a saline drip, aren’t you?” He nodded. “They use them to rehydrate people who are suffering from various diseases; cholera, that sort of thing. Well, we have you hooked up to something similar, Gray. Except in this case it works the other way round. We’re drying you out. So giving you a glass of water would be at cross-purposes to our efforts, would it not?”

The pump wheezed, the electric motor whined on.

“Why … ?” His throat was parched, like he’d spent the week eating crackers and potato crisps and never once stopping for a drink.

“What was that?” He started to recognise things about the voice. Upper class, not interested in much apart from demonstrating its own intelligence, or showing what an idiot he was. The kind of person who enjoyed doing small cruel things. “Why? Why can’t you have a drink? Gray, did you not pay any attention? You can’t just wander into foreign countries and not follow the established protocol, and then expect to receive whatever you ask for.”

He coughed again, like there was a great dry ball of dust stuck in his throat. It hurt to do so; hurt to swallow, hurt to run his distended tongue over his teeth.

“Gray, I want you to debrief me. We want to know what you said, who you said it to. Who did you see?”

He struggled, tried to twist out of the chair, still stuck fast.

“Gray, tell us what you did before we found you. You’ve still got time.”

“Nnrgh.”

“OK. He’s not listening. Slap him.”

Somebody hit him across the face, hard. His head twisted backward, banged against the back of the chair. He stopped moving.

“Gray. Look, we were watching you all yesterday. We saw you checking out the rendezvous earlier on, we saw you go in there last night, and we saw you come out again. All we don’t know is exactly what you said when you were in there. Did you talk to the contact?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about” he said, wheezing as he did so. His mouth, his throat, felt like they had been sandpapered. His tongue seemed to be sticking to the roof of his mouth.

“Gray, don’t be so stoic. There’s not time to waste here. Did you make contact with the man you were sent to speak to?”

‘I’m not – ”

“Slap him again.” A fist against his nose. He felt something splinter. No blood though. Maybe he was too dry for that already. “Gray, listen to me. We know you’ve probably drunk bright water. That’s why we have you rigged up to this machine; we can’t risk not doing so. Eventually, you’re going to die, unless you tell us what happened, so we can have you unplugged and rehydrated. Do you understand?”

“I’m not – ”

“Where is the asset you were delivering, Gray? You spent half an hour in position, where we know your contact would be, so it’s clear you were talking about these matters, and then we saw you leave in an agitated state, at which point we followed you back to the guesthouse. A rather strange choice of location, we considered, given the proximity to the contact, but never mind. I suppose you have your ways. Did you effect the transfer?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His own voice sounded alien to him now, like a desert wind, blowing softly over sandy dunes.

“We’re on the same side here, Gray, that’s the problem. Don’t think there’s some issue of protocol here, where you can’t speak to us. We want the same thing. Our two services, they’re much like siblings, well, estranged relations, perhaps, but we’re looking in the same direction here.”

“You’ve got a bag over my head” he pointed out.

“Ah yes. That is true, but given that you’ve probably come into contact with bright water, we have to be cautious. What the heart doesn’t see, the ear won’t hear, eh? Still, we can do something about that. Kenneth, if you would … ?”

There was a hum from something electric, and then the cloth covering his head was pulled away. It made little difference; instead of being cloaked in darkness, he was now blinded by a powerful white light. The voice carried on speaking from somewhere behind him.

“Comfortable? Good. As I was saying, we enjoy a special relationship. Or at least we did, up until that point where your tinpot lady embarked on her scheme to hand back this region to the Reds. We knew there was something going on, you wouldn’t have given it up so easily. That was about the time we started watching your people more closely. You understand me, don’t you, Gray? Nod if you do.”

He moved his head up and down, hoping that by agreeing they would stop this. He wrinkled his eyes up tight, but still the halogen beams burned through into his retinas.

“We’re telling you this, Gray, so that you know you can trust us, and so that you know we’re serious. We knew there were certain pretensions about Britain being a world power, punching above its weight on the world stage, as you’d put it, and we didn’t understand why you would be giving up Hong Kong. Then we noticed all the material, all the secret equipment being channelled here in the Eighties, as though you were preparing for something. As though what you were giving back to the Chinese wasn’t going to be what they were expecting.

“Then there was the distraction in ’91. We double-bluffed you, made you think we were heading in to Tikrit, that you could ride on our coat-tails, make the connection. It was clear you had your people sent to find the, the source, so then we withdrew, made sure the teams that were sent in didn’t make it back. Friendly fire is a terribly convenient thing sometimes. Interrupt me, Gray, if I’m going too slowly for you. We assumed that would be an end to it. Then we get word that you’ve been sent over, that there’s a plan to activate things. Why would you want to do that, Gray? Who would be profiting from that?”

He said nothing. He just sat there, as the pump and the motors he could not see continued to breath in and out, whir away, and gradually they sucked the fluids out of him.

“Fine. Just sit there, Gray. You only have a few hours. You’d better start talking.”

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