by Max Barry

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Region: Dauiland

“…and you’re certain that Senzala Kadhir has been cleared?”

“Yes,” confirmed Bersan Sieders. “In the eyes of the NIB, your senator is completely innocent.”

“Well, I wouldn’t use the word ‘innocent,” Tessin said, “but it’s good that neither of my Unidalanian assets have been accused of espionage.”

“And what of Grant?” asked Bersan. “The last I heard, Nazbeth wasn’t even aware of the spy in their midst.”

“Your sources are accurate. Grant is doing quite an excellent job, and NIJA is too caught up in domestic affairs to worry about the poss—”

After a short pause, he continued speaking, but not to Bersan: “What are you doing here?”

Bersan could barely hear the reply. It sounded like a woman saying, “I’m here to save you.”

“Save me?” repeated Tessin warily. “Didn’t I just tell you that I’m fine on my own?”

Once again, the response was hardly audible. Bersan could only make out the words ‘help’ and ‘sanctuary’.

Tessin’s next words were directed at Bersan: “Sieders, whatever you do, ma—”

There was a muffled scream, and the call was terminated. Before Bersan had the time to think about what might have occurred, he felt a sharp pain in the back of his head. It felt like he was being stabbed repeatedly. He rubbed his forehead, wondering what was happening. The pain started spreading, and Bersan slowly collapsed to the ground, writhing in pain. Soon, the world faded to black.

The first time he regained consciousness, Bersan was lying on a cold, metallic bed. He opened his eyes cautiously, only to close them again after being blinded by a harsh white light.

“Mr. Sieders?” came a distant voice. Even in this semi-conscious state, Bersan could make out that the voice was eager, young, and male.

“I’m … I’m here,” Bersan croaked. “Where am I?”

“The Third National Hospital,” recited the other. “You’ve been here for twelve hours. You sustained some minor damage to the occipital lobe, causing you to black out.”

“I think … I remember that,” Bersan said. It was taking far too much effort to speak; minor brain damage shouldn’t cause so much pain. “Water … Can I—”

“Yes, of course. Right away.” Bersan opened his left eye and squinted at a figure standing next to his bed.

The other looked at Bersan. “Oh, hello, Mr. Sieders. I’m Doctor Menso Akrevias from the PTJ medical block.”

Bersan waited until the water arrived to respond. After slowly drinking all of it, he cleared his throat, feeling much better. He replied, “I remember. You were one of the new students when I graduated.”

Akrevias nodded a confirmation. “I was. Now, Mr. Sieders, I recommend more rest. Give your body another thirty-six hours, and you should be back to normal.”

Bersan nodded and closed his eyes. Back to normal… he thought. Seconds later, he was back asleep.

The second time he woke up, he felt considerably more drowsy. He opened his eyes, hoping to see Akrevias, but was confronted by a much less friendly face.

“Mr. Sieders,” said Intelligence Secretary Kentar Gierplun matter-of-factly, “the NIB has accused you of several crimes, including collusion with a public threat, lying under oath, illegal use of the Nestle phone line, and espionage against the Unidalanian government.”

“Wha…?” Where was Akrevias? Why was one of the president’s subordinates calling Bersan a criminal?

“Oh, forget it,” Gierplun decided. “The next time you wake up, just follow my orders and you’ll be exonerated in no time.”

“I… I should comply?” Bersan couldn’t remember much, but the phrase compliance will be rewarded wouldn’t leave his mind. Maybe it was this man — Gierplun, if he recalled correctly — who first told it to him.

Gierplun shuddered. “No. Just … please don’t use that word.”

Bersan tried to nod, but instead closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

The third and final time he woke up, he was considerably more energetic and awake, but he wasn’t lying down. In fact, he wasn’t even at the National Hospital!

Instead of being in bed, like he probably should’ve been — considering that he needed 36 hours of rest — he was handcuffed to an object in front of him. “Get … me … out!” Bersan tried to break free of the handcuffs, but they only got tighter. The room was almost pitch black, and the only things he could see were the wooden table in front of him and the telltale red-and-white lights of three NIB security cameras aimed directly at his face.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Sieders, but there’s no getting out of this.” The room’s dim yellow lights flickered to life, revealing a dark-suited man sitting across from the bodyguard. Is that the one who called me a criminal? Bersan wondered.

“I’m Kentar Gierplun, and I believe you saw me a few days ago,” the other said, confirming Bersan’s suspicion.

“Days!?” Bersan repeated incredulously. “The doctor — Akrevias — told me that it would only be thirty-six hours.”

“Unfortunately, your injury… it— it seems to be worse than minor lobe damage. I’ve been checking in on you every few hours for the past four days, and today is when you finally woke up from your coma.”

To be honest, Bersan was quite unimpressed. “A criminal in a coma. You must’ve been so worried,” he said dryly.

Gierplun didn’t tell him to shut up, like Bersan thought he might. Instead, the NIB director smiled and replied, “I’m glad you’ve accepted the fact that you’re going to be staying here a while. But for the record, I didn’t call you a criminal. In fact, the reason I’m here is to prove that you’re not.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means,” Gierplun explained, pulling out a small stack of documents, “that everybody in the NIB now knows you were Tessin’s spy. The information has stayed private — my order, actually. I’m quite positive that Tessin hypnotized you: all the signs of past hypnosis are there. Unfortunately, the rest of the NIB doesn’t share my … let’s call it ‘optimism’. But I’m confident that they’ll change their minds once enough evidence comes to light.”

“And I’m going to give you that evidence?”

“Under oath and surveillance,” Gierplun confirmed, handing the report to the bodyguard. It was titled Bersan Sieders: The Latest Public Threat?. “Open it,” encouraged Gierplun. Bersan did so, flipping through the first few pages to find the historical quote that usually accompanied these reports. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too harsh.

Unfortunately, it was. The quote read:

When a nation is attacked from without, it will inevitably recover; but when destroyed by threats from within, it will collapse. - Uki Genovis, Founder of TLU (1942-1975)

Again, Bersan put on an unimpressed expression. “‘Threats from within’?” he repeated. “Is that what people think I am?”

Internally, however, he was equal parts joyful and apprehensive. Somehow, he’d broken free from Tessin’s hypnosis, but for some reason, he was stuck in an interrogation room. Was the law really going to hold him accountable for what he did under Tessin’s control?

“You’re not responsible for your actions when you were hypnotized, Mr. Sieders,” Gierplun said. “Even if nobody else thinks you were ever hypnotized.”

Reading Bersan’s surprised expression, Gierplun added: “I have experience. I’m actually quite skilled at putting myself in someone else’s shoes. That’s why I have the job I do.”

Bersan knew that he was going to be stuck with Gierplun for a long, long time, so he decided to make the best out of his unfortunate situation. “Then let’s begin, Secretary.”

Three hours, two glasses of water, and one meal later, Bersan Sieders had finished telling Secretary Gierplun essentially everything he could remember doing while under Tessin’s hypnosis.

Bersan would tell a part of his story, the secretary would ask some questions, Bersan would answer them in as much depth as possible, and the whole process would be repeated. By the end of the interrogation — or interview, as Gierplun called it — there were only two questions that had been left unanswered:

“Mr. Sieders, who was conversing with Tessin before your final call with him ended? Why did he end the call without warning?” Gierplun asked, typing out the question on his laptop.

Bersan didn’t know what to say. The secretary probably expected a complete, comprehensive answer — just like every other explanation Bersan has given. And Bersan would’ve been happy to give such an answer, but at the time, he could only make out bits and pieces of Tessin’s conversation.

“Do you know the answer?” Gierplun prompted. “Did Tessin mention anyone’s name? Any locations?”

Bersan shook his head. “No, but I do remember a bit of what Tessin said. He began by asking, ‘what are you doing here?’, then said that he didn’t need to be saved. After that…” He took a deep breath. “…there was a panicked sound, and then the call ended.”

Gierplun nodded. After he finished recording Bersan’s response, he said, “Alright. I believe that we’ve gone over everything that has happened since you encountered Tessin in the central Kevtab mountains.”

While Bersan was formulating a response, Gierplun looked down at the side of the table and mumbled something to himself. “I believe— What are you doing, Secretary?” Bersan asked.

Gierplun looked up at Bersan, then typed something onto his computer. The secretary wore a regretful expression when he turned his computer around so the bodyguard could see the monitor. “Read,” was all that Gierplun said.

“‘Patient Bersan Sieders has suffered extensive cerebral injuries, especially to the occipital and temporal lobes. Damage is irreparable’,” Bersan read. His heart started to pound. Was that why Akrevias left? Because he didn’t want to tell Bersan that his injuries weren’t, in fact, minor wounds? Because being cut off from Tessin’s hypnosis was extremely damaging?

Gierplun nodded solemnly. “I’m really sorry, Mr. Sieders. I wish you didn’t have to know, but … but I just got an email your wife, and she agrees that you should … that you should prepare yourself. You should … I’m sorry, Mr. Sieders,” the secretary repeated, seemingly at a loss for words.

Hoping his worst fears were just paranoid suspicions, Bersan decided to continue reading. “‘There are no known methods that would repair the patient’s brain damage. According to Dr. Akrevias’s calculations, Bersan Sieders has fewer than twelve months left to live.’”

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