Excerpt: The Starkpine Sessions, Day 12

Day 12

Wednesday 19 June, 2019

1347

.

Dr. Madison Matthews, Psych Department, Global Security Task Force

Assigned therapist of GSTF Agent Elenor Kaitlyn Nakagama, Arcto Unit Second, callsign Arcto Foster

.

Ellie sips her tea. Pulls a bare foot up under her where she sits in the corner of the couch. “You know, in a way, I’m grateful.”

“Grateful,” Madison says flatly. “To Crimson Jackal. The group that abducted and tortured you.”

“Mm.”

Madison tucks loose hair behind her ear, giving Ellie space to reconsider. There are those who say it’s unprofessional for a woman in her mid fifties to have waist-length salt-and-pepper hair; mind you, the same people tend to look sideways at the moko kauae on her chin, so they can go hang.

“In a small way,” Ellie says. She waves a hand dismissively. “It’s not Stockholm Syndrome, don’t worry.”

“You might need to explain yourself. If you don’t mind.”

“It’s what I’m here for, right?” The words are dry.

Madison smiles in mute acknowledgement of that point and sips her own cup of tea. Makes a mental note to go back to the loose-leaf with lime zest she had last week. This wildberry one isn’t half as good.

“I’m grateful,” Ellie says, “because it could have been worse. A lot worse.”

“What you went through wasn’t bad enough?”

“No, it was.” She shrugs. The movement doesn’t quite manage to hide the sudden ripple of tension across her shoulders. “It was — bad. More than bad. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.”

“I’m glad you recognise that. Go on.”

“It could have been so much worse. They could have gone for the hard drugs, the ones with a ninety-nine percent addiction rate. They could have started breaking fingers and toes, pulling teeth, cutting bits off us. Blinded or deafened us permanently. I know piercing the eardrums is pretty effective. Anything like that, any proper torture… we’d have been in Medical for months. Rehab for years. It would have ruined us for field work for the rest of our lives, if we ever came back to work at all.”

“If I can stop you there for a second,” Madison says. 

“Sure.”

“What you and Ben went through was torture. It was proper torture, as you put it. Assault, interrogation, severe deprivation… it was physical and psychological torture.”

Ellie blinks at her, slow and thoughtful as a cat, and doesn’t answer. Today she’s in clean sweatpants and a hoodie. The black braid hanging over her shoulder is still damp from a recent shower. The hoodie is two sizes too big: it almost certainly belongs to Smit or O’Brien rather than Ellie herself. She has a habit of borrowing their layers when she needs an extra sense of security.

They smell safe, she says.

She always has been nose-sensitive.

“Don’t try to minimise what they did to you,” Madison says. “Don’t do their job for them. Call it what it was.”

Finally, there’s a quiet nod. “Yeah.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Okay. It was torture. But that said, it could have been worse.”

“Yes, it could have been. But it wasn’t. What happened, happened; it wasn’t any worse, and it wasn’t any better. It was what it was.”

“I know. And like I said, I’m grateful for it. In a weird way.”

“You’re grateful it wasn’t worse?”

“I’m grateful they decided to play a long game.”

Now, that’s an interesting observation. Madison tilts her head. “How so?”

“Our first cell was temporary; obviously so. They didn’t try to hide that. There was a mattress on the floor and a bucket in the corner. Nothing permanent. Nothing to suggest it would be a long stay. They didn’t feed us or give us water, but their tactics were all long-term: they let us sweat, they gave us rest periods, they eased us into the questioning. Maybe they were trying a good cop routine, I don’t know. It didn’t work. So they changed it up.”

“They moved you.”

“To the second cell, yeah. Or cells, I should say. Built-in bunks, permanent toilets. It was purpose-built. They started feeding us as a reward for cooperation. Giving us water. Not too much, just enough to keep us alive. And everything they did after that…” She closes her eyes. Takes a slow breath. “Everything they did was designed to reinforce the idea that we’d be there forever. That they could keep us there for the rest of our lives, in constant pain, never seeing each other. Only talking when they let us talk. Only moving when they let us move. The interrogations and the beatings, the sleep deprivation and the sensory overload… it would never stop. Ever.”

“Unless?” Madison asks.

“Unless we gave them what they wanted.”

“Which was intel.”

Ellie nods. “Intel. On Smit. Yeah.”

“And you didn’t give them that,” Madison says. “Neither of you gave them that. No matter what they threw at you.”

“No. We didn’t.”

She makes a note. “Do you think you would have? If they hadn’t played a long game?”

“I don’t know,” Ellie says. She shifts in her seat. Stares into the middle distance. “What happened, happened. I don’t know how it might have turned out if things had been different. If they’d gone the hard torture route from the get-go. I just know I’m grateful they wanted intel instead of entertainment. That they kept us alive as long as they did.”

Madison opens her mouth.

“I know,” she adds hurriedly. “It was wrong, what they did. And cruel, and sick, and violent. There’s no excuse for that. But it gave us something we could use as leverage. We had something they wanted, and they needed us alive to get it, you see?”

“It doesn’t excuse what they did,” Madison says.

“Of course not. But by going after the intel, they gave us a choice: to tell them or not to tell them. They gave us leverage. We could withhold the intel and suffer the consequences. Or we could tell them. They would’ve killed us as soon as we had, but it was an option. A choice.”

It makes sense. It’s sickening, but it makes sense. “It gave you some control. Not giving them what they wanted. No matter the punishment.”

“Exactly.”

“And control…”

“Control was something that was in very short supply,” Ellie says. “For both of us. Me and Ben. So of course we grabbed any sliver of it that we could see. Sometimes it panned out for us. Something it didn’t.” She touches a thumb to her wrist, rubbing absently at the wire-thin scars there. “Whichever way it fell, it meant something.”

“Because it was your choice?”

“Because it was ours. The decision and the consequences. And after a while… we learned what was worth it. We were playing a long game, too. Playing for survival. But the choices — the choices gave us hope.”

Her hand leaves her wrist. Ellie straightens, mouth curling in something that isn’t quite a smile, and picks up her teacup again. “They couldn’t take that away from us. No matter how hard they tried.”

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