Jean held her pass against the screen so Pete could check it. He leaned forward, squinting, then nodded her toward the scanner.
She flinched as she passed through the two white pillars. The alarms hadn’t gone off once in the twelve years she’d worked there, but the mere thought of being strip-searched by one of her colleagues was enough to incite a daily shudder of revulsion.
She collected her rucksack from the baggage scanner and went straight to the locker room. The smell of musty old sandwiches hit her immediately. Jean hated it in there, but not because of the smell – it was the strip of thin, barred windows that ran around the top edge of the room that she despised most. It was usually the last bit of natural light she saw each day, and it was hard to enjoy it through the yellowy, textured glass. She tried to imagine them framed in frilly curtains of hot pink and lime green, just to cheer herself up a bit, but that never worked.
With her rucksack in her locker and her dark grey overalls on, Jean made her way to the basement stairs. Another fun part of her morning.
The descent usually took around twenty minutes. The steps were narrow and winding and it was dimly lit, so a level of concentration was needed. She had known a few colleagues who had fallen down them – Lucas Franz was now permanently bedbound and could only communicate in frustrated wails. Management had stuck a sign up that said ‘CAREFUL: STEEP STAIRS’, as if that was enough to put an end to the accidents. With the image of Lucas’ slack mouth in her mind, Jean gripped the rickety handrail so hard her hand ached.
She reached the bottom and stood still for a moment, listening. It always struck her how silent the basement was. Not quiet, but completely silent. Sometimes she’d click her fingers next to her ears to check her eardrums hadn’t ruptured. The echo was both satisfying and eerie.
Around the corner at the front desk, Kelly was slumped over her computer trying to survive the final hour of her night shift. She looked up at Jean and smiled as much as she was able, her large, round glasses slipping down her delicate nose as she did so. Jean had told Kelly several times to get smaller glasses – she had such a small, straight little nose, it was a shame to hide it. Jean wished she was short-sighted so she could cover up the huge beak her mother had lovingly passed down to her.
“How was your evening?”
“Productive,” Kelly said. “Uneventful. I can’t wait for Nick to get here and take over, I’m done in.”
“Yeah, you look it.” Jean dodged the ball of paper Kelly lethargically threw at her. “Are you up to anything today?”
“Sleep. Eat. Then get ready for tonight’s shift. I live an exciting life.”
Kelly wheeled back on her chair and opened the cabinet behind her. She began rifling through a stack of folders until she found what she was looking for: a pink sheet of paper with a passport-sized photo attached to the top left-hand corner. She handed it to Jean.
“But I’m supposed to be working yesterday’s case,” Jean said, scanning it quickly. “Robert Matford.”
“Robert Manningford. And there’s no need. That ended last night. The boss man told me to give this one to you the minute you got in. Looks like a tough one.”
Jean nodded. The offender was fifty-two. Older men were always the hardest. She’d often heard colleagues say it was the younger ones you had to watch, the teen rebels, but they weren’t a bother at all. These older ones knew what they were doing.
The interview room was just down the corridor from the front desk. Jean keyed in the code and the door opened with a gentle whoosh, filling her nostrils with a gust of stale air.
Inside was a table with a microphone screwed onto it, two chairs and a low-hanging lightbulb emitting a faint glow. Jean sat down and looked at the empty chair across from her, feeling a little aggravated. Interviews always went better if the offender had been waiting for her.
A couple of minutes later the offender shuffled in, followed closely by a scrawny guard. The guard yanked down on the offender’s handcuffs, forcing the man to sit.
“Do you need anything else from me, ma’am?” The guard eyed up the offender as if prepared to beat his head in at a moment’s notice.
“No thank you,” Jean said, putting the offender’s file face-down on the table. “Do you mind waiting outside?”
The guard nodded, and then they were alone.
The only sounds to be heard were the offender’s laboured breaths and the recycled air in the vents. The usual feeling of dread asserted itself in Jean’s stomach – or was it adrenaline, her body readying itself for the task ahead? She never knew. Either way, it made her squirm.
“What’s your name?” she asked. She knew it already, of course, but she always let them introduce themselves.
The man shrugged. But then a memory caused his expression to change, and he reluctantly said, “Sam. Sam Vinietti.”
Jean noticed a yellow bruise on his cheekbone. She leaned back on her chair, placing her hands carefully on her lap. “I’m Jean. I’m your liaison officer, so I’ll…”
“You’ll be trying to get a confession out of me.”
“Confession? No, nothing like that.”
“Look…Joan, is it?”
“Okay, Jean, I’ve done this before. Many, many times. There’s no deal you can offer me that will make me confess. No game you can play. You can torture me all you want. I just have to be here for five days, then you have to let me go. That’s the law. This is my fourth day here, so you and I both know how this is going to go.”
Jean took a deep breath and leaned forward so Sam could take in every word she said. He had a sweet face, she thought. A greying, patchy beard. Lovely brown eyes. If it wasn’t for all the scars, he would just look like someone’s dad. Someone’s husband. A neighbour.
“Sam,” she said. Offenders always listened more carefully if you said their name first. “I think you’ve misunderstood what’s been told to you. I’m your liaison officer, not an investigator. They already have proof of your criminal activity. I’m just here to see if there’s anything I can do for you before you’re transferred to the central facility.”
His wiry brows furrowed. “No. That’s not possible.”
“I’m afraid it is. We can go through your case together, if you like, or you can give me the contact details of your family so I can tell them where you are. Or friends. Or whoever your people are.”
“I have no one,” he said automatically.
Jean watched Sam’s shoulders sag as the news began to sink in, and he placed his hands over his face. He wasn’t upset, but he was a calculated man. He must have been to have lasted so long. He was careful about how people perceived him, and he didn’t want her to see him so unprepared.
“How long?” he asked, dropping his hands. He was expressionless. “Until I’m transferred, I mean.”
“Around two hours.”
“And when I get there?”
“Usually around a week for the processing to go through. Sometimes it’s a little longer, but not by much.”
Sam shook his head. She could almost see his thoughts as he ran through a decade’s worth of memories, looking for any indication that it had been worth it. It very rarely was. She had seen men, women and even children look back on their lives with this sense of detachment, weighing up the good and the bad, the right and the wrong. It genuinely hurt her to see a human being consider the complexity of their existence in such a black and white way. If only offenders had thought this all out before. If only they had read the countless pamphlets, posters and emails. If only they had stopped before it got to this.
Sam leaned back and let out a long puff of air through pursed lips. Jean watched him quizzically.
“How long have you worked here?” he asked.
“Over a decade.”
“So you were around from the beginning.”
She nodded again.
He raised his eyebrows derisively. Then he held up his handcuffs. “Can you take these off? They hurt.”
“I wish I could, Sam, I really do, but…”
“Please? This is the last chance I have. I’ve heard they keep offenders chained to their beds at the central facility.”
They did. Insurance reasons rather than cruel intentions, but it drove a lot of the offenders mad. She had seen it on a visit there once. A dismal place. She winced thinking about it.
He leaned in, a small, embarrassed smile on his lips. Removing the handcuffs was against protocol, but Sam knew there were guards outside. He knew she was trained to disarm offenders in dozens of differing attack scenarios. He wasn’t stupid – he had lasted so long, there was no way he was the type of man to take unnecessary risks.
Jean reached forward and held her thumb on the link between the cuffs. Two small beeps sounded. “Release,” she said, and they snapped open.
He took them off and placed them on the table. “Thank you.”
She smiled in return, but her body instinctively readied itself.
“I’m not going to do anything,” he said. “There’s no point now, is there?”
“No. There isn’t.”
He stretched his arms upwards, relishing his freedom, then his gaze fell on the microphone on the table. He indicated to it with a nod of his head.
“What’s that for? I thought you already have all the evidence you need.”
“We use recordings for training mostly. For the young trainees.”
He let out an ugly laugh, false and forced. Then he grew serious. “So if I were to say something about them, would you edit the recording before playing it back to your young trainees? I’m sure you don’t want them to learn the truth. If they knew, you’d have more rebels than colleagues by the end of the day.”
Jean said nothing. She was a soundboard for his distress, a common reaction to being told about the central facility. He was frightened. But there was no helping Sam, not now. He’d been given enough chances. According to his records, he had been on the public safeguarding course seven times. Seven. Yet he hadn’t learned. He still hadn’t learned. Some people are just naturally born to push against things, even if it’s not in their best interest. Like kids being told not to touch a hot stove but doing it anyway. It was all so senseless.
Jean pulled a leaflet out of the pocket of her overalls and pushed it across the table to Sam. It was the leaflet about choices. Sam glanced at it briefly and pushed it back. He’d seen it a thousand times.
“Why are you showing me this?” he asked.
“I’ve found it sometimes helps offenders to go through the choices they’ve made,” Jean said, pushing the leaflet back. “It could help you come to terms with things. For the next two hours I’m here for you, and I want to make sure you feel as comfortable as possible and understand exactly what’s going on.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do. You broke the law, and neither of us can change that. We also can’t change what’s going to happen to you. But we can get you ready for it and make the best of things.”
Sam’s jaw tightened. “The best of things?”
Jean crossed her left leg over her right and felt for the gun strapped to her ankle. She fingered the outline of it so she knew the quickest way to get it out of the holster.
Sam gripped the edge of the table. “Do you think they are able to make the best of things? They landed on this planet looking for help, but they were better off dying where they were. Have you seen the camps we’ve put them in? You must have seen them. You must know what we do to them.”
He stood up and began to pace. Jean pulled the gun from its strap and held it beneath the table, her finger hovering over the trigger.
“Sam, please calm down.”
“Calm down? How can I? For twelve years I’ve heard them. They scream, you know. They scream loudest at night.”
“It’s an ability, what I have. A gift. I’m not an offender. Or a rebel. Or whatever it is you want to call me.”
“Sam, you’ve had twelve years since they landed to tell someone about your condition. The aliens are dangerous. If you’re able to hear them but do nothing, you’re putting the whole planet at risk. By failing to report your condition, you’ve committed a serious criminal offence against the entire human race. That’s what makes you an offender.”
The careful façade built over the past decade had fully melted away, and with balled fists and gritted teeth Sam kicked over his chair. “Are you serious? Would you give yourself up just so you can be dissected by the government? Every single person who admits they can hear them is never seen again.”
“That’s not true.”
Sam chuckled, shaking his head. “All those stories of reunited families were nothing but propaganda, and you know it.”
There was no helping him. Jean could see the hatred in his eyes. The specialists at the central facility would consider him a hopeless case and wouldn’t even bother trying to rehabilitate him.
He began pacing again, unable to suppress his rage as his ranting continued: “Knowing they’re in pain. Knowing what we’re doing to them. People must remember them, even if they can’t hear them. There was so much chaos when they landed. I don’t understand how the world can carry on, day after day, knowing that there are intelligent creatures imprisoned and experimented on.”
Jean stood so Sam could see her gun. But it didn’t calm him. It just made him angrier.
“I will never tell you where they are. Never.”
That knocked the wind out of Jean. He still thought he had a chance of helping them. She didn’t want to be the one to crush him, to take that hope away from him. But he had to be ready. He had to know the truth.
“The investigators have already found them,” she said.
Sam swallowed. “What?”
“The four aliens. The ones you took from the camp. They found them in a woodshed seven miles from your home.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“They’ve been destroyed, Sam.” And everything you’ve done has been pointless, she wanted to add, but she couldn’t bring herself to say the words.
She felt uncomfortable. He was crying now, guttural sobs emanating from his chest, all while maintaining eye contact with her. It was disturbing. But she didn’t look away. It was her duty to support him.
“Do you know why we’re miles underground right now?” he suddenly asked, taking a step towards her.
Jean swallowed, her throat suddenly feeling very tight. “Sit down, Sam.”
“Not until you’ve answered me.”
“Because you won’t be able to hear them this far underground,” she said simply.
He nodded. “And do you know why it’s illegal to be able to hear them? Do you know what really makes it an offence?”
He started to edge around the table. She aimed her gun directly at his chest.
“It’s because, if you listen to them long enough, you can learn to talk back.”
“Sam, this is your final warning. Back away. Now.”
“And if enough offenders are together in one place, who knows? We might all scream loud enough. The ones who managed to escape might come and help us. They might be outside this room right now.”
Sam lunged forward, and Jean squeezed the trigger. Sam staggered backwards to the wall, clutching his chest, then collapsed to the ground.
Jeans ears were ringing. A couple of guards rushed in and surrounded the body. Another came up behind Jean and put his arm around her shoulder.
“Are you okay? Maybe you should go up and wait in reception while we deal with this.”
Jean looked out through the open door to the corridor. She thought of going up the stairs, and all the screams she couldn’t hear.
“I’m all right down here,” she said.