combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2007

Outside the Door

          Outside the door, Paul thought it was harder. He had not been inside yet, so his conclusion was pretty much academic. In such situations, however, conclusions must be drawn. Otherwise there is no firm ground on which to stand.

          One must have firm ground on which to stand, Paul had decided. Freefall is tenable only when Hollywood special effects prevent the impact from killing somebody.

          There were no special effects here.

          Paul was in a room with cabinets on the wall, a book shelf, a sink and a towel on a hook above it, a desk and three wooden chairs. There were no windows. On the desk were a pliers, a hammer, a telephone book, obsolete tools of the trade but sufficient triggers to communicate clearly to the ones in the chair what was coming, what would be their fate, what they must endure if they did not help us out.

          A scream that the door barely muffled made the hair on Paul's neck stand up. That was not a myth, then, not a fictional device. It was something primordial, the contagion of terror that must spread quickly through the tribe in the face of threats that elicit such shrieks. Paul felt his heart race and perspiration broke out on his face, his chest, his hands. It was flight or fight but no one was there to hit, there was nowhere to go.

          He wiped his face with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. The sweatshirt said I ♥ New York. No uniforms in either room, no labels. Just ironic commentary stitched in red on gray.

          The next scream provoked less response. He was becoming habituated, perhaps, he told himself. Soon it would be commonplace.

          Paul heard faint whimpering through the wooden door. He could not hear the voices of his colleagues which were conversational in volume and tone. Only Menudo ever raised his voice, but Menudo was in Bangkok. Frank, Perry Mirsky, Johnny and Carl were in there, attempting to elicit actionable intelligence in order to save lives and advance the Möbius strip-like interface of the battlespace a few inches.

          They all talk, sooner or later. You too will talk, Paul had been told during training. This is why we limit what you know. You will know only what is necessary for you to carry out your task, and you will tell them everything, everything about it, so don't pretend that you are not flesh or heir to whatever flesh is heir to including doing anything it can to stop the tearing, the burning, the squeezing, the shocks.

          The burning was the worst, interrogators told him, because afterward, every time you walked past a steakhouse or backyard barbecue, something you loved to eat had become an emetic. Smell is the most intense, they said; the species can not afford to make mistakes with poisons, so imprinting is indelible. Better to miss meals by mistake than eat one piece of meat that is guilty as sin.

          Whatever threatens us is a sin. Whatever degrades the ability of the enemy to threaten us is a virtue. The enemy is identifiable. So are we. Theology on this side of the door, congruent with the ancient wisdom of the early Hebrew scriptures, is as easy to believe as it is to formulate as theory.

          An unexpected scream pierced the door and caught him off guard. In spite of himself, he trembled, his hands trembled for a moment, and Paul was glad that no one was there to see it.

          He realized that standing was making him tense. He sat in one of the wooden chairs and put his booted feet up on another. He closed his eyes and crossed his arms and held himself tightly and breathed deeply until the trembling diminished.

          The door opened and Paul opened his eyes.

          "Hey!" said Johnny Younger, closing the door behind him. He went over to a sink and washed blood from his hands and dried them on the towel on a hook. There was a spatter of blood on his shirtsleeves and the front of his shirt. "This one thinks he's pretty tough." he laughed. "Maybe he just enjoys it. Ya'think?"

          Paul laughed woodenly and shrugged. "I don't know who's in there."

          "What's it matter? One's another. You know we don't use names, we use numbers, short ones like seven oh four. This one is six thirty two. Frank keeps calling him six for short which still gets a laugh. Except from six."

          Paul removed his feet from the chair and leaned forward.

          "Are you getting anywhere?"

          Johnny shrugged. "Sure, I guess. Cutting through the bullshit, getting it into his head that nothing he can do or say can stop us."

          "Who else is in there, again?"

          "Frank, Perry Mirsky, Carl, is all. Carl said this one's his two hundredth. He ought to get some kind of trophy, ya'think?"

          "Damn. He's been here that long."

          "No not that long. He's good so they use him a lot. He's had no more than one or two oops deaths. Well, maybe three maybe four. They don't slip out of the room until he's through."

          "He must know what he's doing."

          "Oh yeah. He's been all over. He worked with the Uzbeks in Bosnia." Johnny laughed. "You know what he says about the Uzbeks? He says it was a novelty to them to be told that one intention of interrogation might be to elicit information." Johnny laughed a high-pitched laugh. "They thought it was a sport."


          "Yeah. You hear some weird shit doing this sort of work."

          "So that's where Carl was before? Europe?"

          "I guess. He's been all over. He's worked with partners in Argentina, little countries here and there, Israel, some Africans, even China."

          "Really? China?"

          "He was classified officially as an observer. While they interrogated Falun Gong."

          "Did he learn anything? Have they improved on what we're doing?"

          "No, not really. A body's a body. Nerves are nerves. You read the manual. Human is human."

          Paul watched his colleague look around the sparsely furnished room for a moment, then sit on one of the empty chairs.

          "You getting anxious for a turn?" Johnny said.

          Paul turned in his chair, facing a different windowless wall. "No, not exactly, but I think I'm ready. I read that book again last night "

          "The Face of Evil?" Johnny smiled. The one with the pictures and descriptions of what these guys have been doing to us?"

          "Yeah, that one." He flashed on hundreds of faces of friends, colleagues, beloved members of families, arranged in rows like mug shots, their faces in death unable to convey the horror of their dying. That was left to the words. "It makes you think."

          "Yeah, it does. Think what it takes to be here in the trenches."

          A long drawn-out scream was followed by a keening wail and a torrent of words they couldn't understand. Johnny said, "Perry Mirsky knows what it means. He's really good at languages."

          The other door, the door to the hallway, opened and a colonel came in. They had seen him around the base but hadn't met. The colonel carried two hoods like ski masks without eyes which he tossed onto the table.

          "You might need these later on," he said. "Today, tomorrow maybe, they have some women."

          "Thanks, Colonel," Johnny said with a hint of a salute. Things got pretty informal down here. "Especially if our new boy here takes a turn."

          The colonel closed the door softly behind him as he left.

          Johnny looked at Paul looking at the hoods. "You know for what, right?"

          Paul said, "To cover the faces."

          Johnny laughed, "Yeah, sure, but especially the eyes. Sometimes when you see their eyes, they can manipulate you, looking the way they do. It's easier to blot it out. So you can focus on the work."

          "The noise doesn't get to you?"

          "No, not like eyes. Or smells. Smells sink in somehow. "

          A muffle of voices came through the door, some speaking English.

          "They're talking to him now," Paul said, not really giving Johnny information.

          "Yep. About time, too."

          They sat in mutual silence listening to occasional noises coming through the door.

          "So how long you got?" Paul said.

          "What, until I go home?"


          "Shit," Johnny scowled. "I don't even think about that. Do you? Is that what you think about, sitting here?"

          Paul backed away quickly from disapproval. "No, not often. Once in a while."

          "You don't want to think about that," Johnny said. "Just stay focused on why we have to be here, what we have to do. We're protecting the sheep. We're the dogs keeping the wolves away. You think they want to see what a wolf looks like after a dog has torn out its throat?"

          "I wasn't thinking of that," Paul said. "That's something else."

          "That's right. Don't forget it."

          "No." Johnny shook his head. "I know. I won't."

          The door opened. Carl looked out but did not come into the room. "Break's over, pussy willow," he said with a grin. "He's getting to where you can do some of your magic."

          Johnny smiled and rose from the chair. Keeping the door open so long allowed the odor of excrement into the room.

          "Jesus, close the fucking door," Paul said. "I haven't got anything in my nose."

          Carl and Johnny laughed. "Stay cool, grasshopper," Carl said. Johnny went into the room after Carl and they shut the door.

          Paul tried to put his feet up again but couldn't sit still. He stood and walked around the room, looking at the cabinets containing tools, clothing and towels, a shelf on which were a few books to read while waiting. Someone always had to be outside the door, just in case. This week it was Paul's turn. Then he would move on.

          He wasn't hearing anything now, just his own breathing and the noises he made. That was all right, really, it let him think about other things. One thought or image linked to another. After half an hour of relative quiet, he became bored and chose one of the paperbacks – any one, whatever it was – and read the words without allowing them to tell much of a story or mean much of anything, really. Still, it was something to do while he waited.

by Richard Thieme
... who is a professional author of books, stories, and articles, which are indexed at Thieme Works online. His Richard Thieme's Islands in the Clickstream (July 2004) is a collection of past works, while "Entering Sacred Digital Space", New Paradigms for Bible Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium (June 2004) and "Identity / Destiny", Prophecy Anthology (vol 1, 2004) were anthologized. His "The Changing Context of Intelligence and Ethics: Enabling Technologies as Transformational Engines" appeared in Defense Intelligence Journal (January 2007). His stories have been published in Analog Science Fiction, The Puckerbrush Review, Timber Creek Review, Porcupine, Pacific Coast Journal, The Potomac Review, Red Wheelbarrow, Heartlands, The Circle Magazine, The Listening Ear, Words on Walls, Nth Degree, Down in the Dirt, Golf, Rogue, and elsewhere. His articles have been published in Forbes, Salon, Information Security, Secure Business Quarterly, Village Voice, Wired, Counter Punch, Common Dreams, Internet Underground, National Catholic Reporter, Asia Times Online, The Witness, and elsewhere. This short story has been excerpted from The Room, a forthcoming book.

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