We survive anywhere; eat anywhere. Look around you. You’re never more than a couple of feet from one, even if you can’t see it. That’s how we survive. Such is the way.
Nobody knows I’m here. If they did, they’d deny it. Such is the way. I didn’t have to take it, but what else was I going to do? I am, after all You may think me a rat.
, a rare commodity. A naturalised British-Afghan, fluent in the necessary dialects and recently graduated, after a distinguished early military career, from... Well, that’s classified. You understand.
We moved to Britain in ’83 when the Soviets were in the North and American weapons in the South. Dad thought we would be safe there, compared to anywhere else.
If my jaw wasn’t broken, I still couldn’t talk, even with the pentothal. Earlier, The Inquisition had taken my tongue. They fed it to a dog they said. I heard it chewing.
This was my interrogation.
The Inquisition were righteous professionals in need of practice. They would have taken it even if I had told them everything, out of disgust. I can’t write either. My fingers are broken and I haven’t been able to open my eyes since they soaked me in petrol after they tired of the waterboard. Even without the petrol, the sockets are too bruised to open.
Training states that, upon capture, you disclose only name, rank and number. Various conventions, which only apply if you are caught abusing them, state that this is all a captured enemy operative is obliged to disclose. Torture, whatever you understand the word to mean, is strictly unacceptable. Officially.
I tried several times during my interrogation to disclose this information but, tongue or no, with a broken jaw you talk only in mumbles. I’m sure they knew this. It didn’t matter. After a couple of hours, maybe a day, maybe more, I don’t know; after a while it gets hard to tell if you’re awake. I remember stating many times; name, rank, number and that I was British Intelligence only to wake up squealing in a gurgled scream.
The Inquisition were legends in their field. Ghosts and vengeful djinns, demons sent by the infidel god to rain terror, shock and awe upon the savages with napalm and knuckledusters and drafted from the active ranks in the worst parts of the world to do the job. Sides aren’t important, as long as payment is prompt. Officially, they didn’t exist.
Deniability was everything. But we knew about them. There were stories from every conflict from Angola to Azerbaijan via the Gulf and South America and now here they were, deep in country. The Inquisition, crusaders on a holy mission who had single-handedly cleared the surrounding valleys so fast and with such savage professionalism that even the hardest enemy elements shrank from the call to strike back. Reports had reached command of atrocities in the hills they controlled, messages left for the insurgents. Ritual, old-testament stuff, bloody installations of man, woman and beast, arranged, photographed and left in the hills and villages as a warning to the enemy and their families. The Inquisition were coming, on the side of all that was good and godly, to clear the land of the defiling hordes.
But they don’t exist. No-one complains. Officially. It gets buried. Either way it was clear no-one wanted to know, just for the job to be done. It was supposed to be quick. They had been here for at least three years, maybe more, by the time I arrived.
I had been with The Assassins for nine weeks deep undercover. Dark skin, Pashto and convincing beards go a long way out here; it had taken since the beginning of the conflict, more than ten years, to settle in the area and gain acceptance into The Assassins. They kill those refused entry to the group and leave them for the rats and birds. No-one knows what happens to traitors.
When the Inquisition caught me, before they broke my jaw, I was due to report in. I took my chance on watch. The altitude would help to get a decent signal.
I didn’t get a chance to speak. If the Inquisition had known The Assassins were sleeping twenty feet away this whole thing would have been over days ago, one way or the other.
But The Inquisition don’t want that. Where would they go?
I don’t blame them for this, my interrogation. I would, if necessary, do the same. That’s the training. I have been lucky. You hear worse about both sides. Such is the way. Intelligence stated that The Inquisition were pioneers in interrogation and that The President took a keen interest in both their findings and evolving methods, on the understanding that he would deny that interest or any other involvement.
I was still alive. I was an excellent subject; the best kind of guinea pig. Even if I survived, I couldn’t tell anyone. Such is the way.
Before they moved me, another man had come in. I was barely conscious but remember thinking I was saved, that some message had got through that I was operating in the area and that I was saved, somehow; one of their own in the field and in need of assistance. ‘Semper Fi!’, ‘Hoowah’ and all the other bullshit.
Delusion comes on strong at time like this.
I must have been out again because I don’t remember being moved. I was tied to a chair, hands behind my back. The other man must have ordered my removal. But my attention was elsewhere. When you think you’re blind there’s nothing like a change in the light to bring you around. My eyes still would not open but a light had been turned on and I could make out that parts of wherever I now was, seemed, through my swollen lids, that some areas were brighter than others. If I could see, I thrilled, there was hope.
I was trying to work my mangled hands from the ropes when there was the sound of machinery outside. Not a car, it was too small, maybe a winch and with it the faint, inevitable hiss of a nearing whisper, somewhere, five or six metres I guessed, above my chair and slowly getting closer. I tried to force open my eyes lurching from side to side trying to make out some change in the light around me; anything to give me a hope of escape but there was nothing. Only when I angled my head up could I see any change, a brightness, slight and blue against the glowing white. The mechanical drone sputtered and ceased but the hiss remained swinging above.
Three times I thought I had freed my hands but the renewed aggravation made them swell even more and the shallower wounds opened up in bloody ravines. I succeeded only in tightening my bonds. I heard the blood dripping behind me. My feet were wet. The ground was flooded. I smelled the petrol in my clothes.
Again I heard voices, outside this time, muffled by the walls. I knew I was being watched but I was sure I was alone in the room There was no footfall or the measured gasps of deliberately light breathing to make me suspect otherwise. My ears reached into the dark.
Which was how I found the rat, scurrying and squeaking somewhere close to my ear, as the mechanical drone resumed, slow and monotonous behind the approaching hiss from above that seemed to wax and wane, keeping time for the hum outside. Metal screeched against metal, whispered voices too hushed to be heard from outside and the screech of metal again, then only the swinging hiss from above as the mechanical hum ground to a halt and silence beyond.
I listened for the rat. It hadn’t moved. Something had its attention. It occurred to me that the rat could see everything I couldn’t and I imagined him weighing up his chances of success in some private mission, details classified. I remember thinking that through force of will alone I might be able to open some sort of channel to the rat by which he could brief me on my surroundings and the best means of escape. We can, after all, smell our own and loyalty amongst rats, tenuous as it might be, is sometimes all we have. I convinced myself that any rat in this situation would no doubt be a highly trained operative, forged in the fields of rodent conflict and adept at evading even the most elaborate methods of interrogation, just like me. I was partly right. I remember a splash. I thought that the tongue-chewing dog had jumped in the water. I heard it behind me. It was biting my hands; tearing them in bloody strips. How much blood can a rat get through before it is sick? I passed out.
Pain brought me round and I forced my eyes open, squinting in the tube-light glare. I tried again and caught a corrugated door and piled tires; a garage? I was in the inspection pit. I started rocking the chair, in the hope of tipping it forward to balance on my feet. I was missing the end of a toe and the wounds screamed as the pressure ground on the stump, burn-sealed earlier by my captor’s cigars, in the stagnant water at the bottom of the pit. I planted my feet, tottered, gained my balance and pulled my hands to beyond the rat’s reach. It screeched and splashed behind me, grasping for a new path to its meal.
My sight returning, I craned my neck towards the hiss from above. The mechanical hum began again as I jammed my lids apart. Lashed to the end of a winch line and slung over a beam over the pit was a gas-torch, full-stream, the steel tip burned white by the sky- blue flame. I smelled the petrol. Even without it, I would endure the slow agony of the flame as it moved down the length of my body at my captors’ will, extending the pain and bouncing against my body as I struggled to avoid it. The petrol might be a mercy.
Fear forced my eyes open. All around me were the charred limbs and torsos of earlier victims, failed interrogation experiments. Horror 2.0. Pinned beside the steel door was an arm, severed completely by the torch in some earlier experiment. I could see the torch now, sinking steadily towards me and there was a new sound coming from the door. I peered over the edge of the pit. The smell was stronger now as the dark stain spread from underneath the steel door, across the floor and towards the pit. I focussed on the stain. The Inquisition were filling the pit and the garage with petrol. If the torch failed they would just ignite the fuel from outside and move to another base of executions.
I jammed my hands back into the water and let the rat feast, forgetting the pain and hoping that he might take pity and gnaw through the bonds before my hands. I bit down my screams as the torch swung closer, swaying with the awkward downward motion.
And then I was free. The rat had saved me. And I still had seven fingers. Maybe I would lose my left thumb. Still, you can’t have everything. I reached down and with my remaining fingers untied my ankles and mangled feet from the chair legs.
Freedom has a smell and a taste felt by a sense beyond the others, so thick and strong when it’s near you could bite it off in chunks to sustain you for the last faltering steps to redemption. I bid goodbye to the rat. He glanced at me disappointedly and swam off to the far side of the pit, choosing to climb out using the stairs. I was glad not to have to fight him, I owed him a lot. I like rats. He scurried off behind a pile of rusting bumpers.
I hauled myself out of the pit, rolling in the petrol that now half-filled the pit and covered the floor from the pit to the door. A window, another door, a drain, a vent; anything? I had already come so far, thanks in part to my friend the rat, but there was nothing. The torch was a couple of feet above the pit now. It would only take a spark to blow both the rat and myself through the garage door and flaming towards whatever world comes next.
I hobbled to the door and slammed my weight against it. The door crashed and rattled back against me but gave no sign of giving way. Outside, The Inquisition were laughing. The winch droned on.
A yell of panic, brief, heavy silence and the sound of gunfire from every direction. The petrol stopped but the winch continued to drop the torch towards the pit.
I hammered against the door, screaming tongueless pleas in English and Pashto, wailing my last earthly hopes against the cold steel door. Then louder voices outside and the thunder of hooves, another burst of gunfire and then... was it... Pashto? I screamed for them to stop the winch, howling wordless mumbles.
I slammed myself against the door again and fell through where it should have been and on towards the ground beyond the garage and then on my knees, forcing my butchered feet into the dirt and up and trying to run. Lurching forward and falling again, out of consciousness and into the arms of Brother Mahmood Khaliq.
The Assassins’ Tear had arrived to rescue their captured brother from the Infidels. I remember, after my brothers stopped the winch and left the dead to burn in my erstwhile jail, a shadow in the dawn across the flame-lit sands. It looked like a dog, but for the short legs and tail. I never mentioned the rat to my brothers. Like I said, I like them. We help our own. I fed him. Fingers to freedom. You may think me a rat. You can’t have everything. Such is the way, in the kingdom of the rat.
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