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A Prisoner of Memories- A suspense short story

Disclaimer: The story is completely a work of fiction.

Are pictures worth a thousand words? Can thousand words rake up a picture? If pictures could tell a story, could stories paint a picture? If memories could turn into a picture, could pictures evoke long forgotten memories? If pictures could be worth a lifetime, can a moment worth a lifetime be captured in a picture? Victor had the tendency to lose himself in philosophy, when work was slow. He had often contemplated letting the Chief know about the papers in his cabinet. They had been lying there, duly filled, for over two years now. All he needed was a trigger, a sign.

“Victor, did you find anything else on that suspect?” Victor’s train of thought was interrupted by the Chief himself.

Startled, Victor stood up from his chair, “There’s no progress yet, Chief”.

“Hook him to the MEM. Scour his mind for any and all information. Pictures, maps, codes, whatever you find. Dig into his past, if the need be. Maybe we’ll find some clues there. I’ll send over the approvals.”

“But he’s still unconscious. We could wait to interrogate him first...”

“Not another word, Victor. I need an update by afternoon.” The Chief roared and headed for his cabin.

“Sure, Chief.” Victor mumbled, as he switched the MEM on to start preparations for the scouring operation. He ordered his subordinate to bring the old man captured the day before to his office.

Working in the Secret Service was not easy. Hectic would be an understatement. For days on end, Victor wouldn’t step out of the four walls of his office. ‘And why would he? He has no one to go back to. Just a house full of obscure, half-burnt pictures’, his subordinates would often gossip. Victor had lost his mother to a house fire when he was five, and his father, who served the Secret Service in the capacity of a spy, it was rumoured, had been abducted on one of his missions and had sided with the enemy to save his life. He had no recollection of a childhood – just vague repetitive dreams and the flak he earned for his father’s rumoured betrayal of the State in 1909. Thirty years on, the only possession he had from his childhood was a box full of old picture albums – pictures from across the globe that his father had captured when he could afford getaways while working on missions. The pictures were half-destroyed in the fire that took away his mother, but he wished that they would somehow paint a story someday.

The Secret Service used a memory extracting machine (MEM) that extracted memories from a suspect’s mind in the form of pictures. Memory maps, as they were called, could capture memory snapshots that lay safely in the subject’s unconscious mind. Those snapshots could be from childhood, a photo album, a movie, or a distant dream. To put those snapshots together and predict if the subject meant any harm to the State was Victor’s job. The State, backed by the support of its allies had been embroiled in a war with some of its neighbouring nations, and, it had become all the more important to extract every piece of information. Dealing with criminals, spies and dangerous suspects, he often wondered if that was all his memory map would be about, were he to go under the MEM himself.

The 35-year-old analyst’s day generally started with case files for breakfast, peaked with interrogations and memory maps for lunch, and ended with unpalatable, lonely meals for dinner. Today was going to be no different. Chief had already ordered him to immediately draw his attention to this 65-year old man who was caught close to the State’s tri-state international border. The State Intel seemed to have no records on him, his fingers were charred and had no possibility of a fingerprint, and the man had been in a state of stupor since they found him. It was rumoured that Chief had received information that some of their allies might side with the enemy. He was therefore desperate to extract whatever information he could as soon as possible.

When the old suspect was brought in to the MEM room, Victor felt an eerie familiarity with him. The unkempt beard, messy hair and shoddy clothes suggested there was more than meets the eye. Orders were orders, he reminded himself, and began to pay attention to the memory maps flickering on screen. Victor often wondered what was the purpose of all this, of enmity, or of wars at all. We all turn to dust – some sooner, some later in life, he thought. What couldn’t we achieve if everyone got along? More importantly, why can’t we all get along – after all, we all want the same things in life. What’s stopping us? He wondered if he could lead a different life – if we could all lead different, peaceful lives.

Victor was suddenly startled by what he had in front of his eyes. The old man’s memory map was unlike any he had seen before. Memory maps of suspects show pictures of wars, deaths, planning and plotting, location maps, brutal killings and torturous interrogations. This one showed none of it. Victor would look at the old man’s memory map and think to himself, ‘This is probably a man who’s seen several years of struggle; the scars on his body reveal that he’s been in and out of prisons, may be concentration camps, may be even worse, but all that his memory map shows are happy pictures of his travels and family outings to beaches, to palaces, to museums, to the Eiffel tower; snapshots of a woman – probably his wife, a little kid – probably his son; but no wars, no deaths, no torturous interrogations’. It was likely that someone else had used the MEM on him to wipe his memories out, but how did these happy memories, and so many of them, stayed back? Victor was sure that was what life needed to be about, but ‘I never had the time’, he mumbled. ‘You always had an option’, whispered a faint voice in his head.

‘What is my own life about? Is there a God looking out for each of us? Is life just a Zimbardo’s prison experiment on a large scale, with people assuming roles on either side of the law? Are spies and suspects capable of living a life outside of their undercover life? Can their memory maps be better than that of a Victor or a Michael or a Bill?’, Victor pondered.

While his intellectual faculties were running riot inside his head, something caught his eye. What was that? Where had he seen it before? Could that… really…but how…wasn’t he? By the time the realization dawned on him, Victor was gasping for breath, eyes probably moist for the first time in a long time. He couldn’t be mistaken about it. His pictures may have been half-burnt, but he knew they’d paint a story someday. A familiar story.

“Victor, I think we have the wrong man” said the Chief, barging into the interrogation room. “I just received a message from the Border Patrol. It seems there was a confusion reporting suspicious activities on the State border. They had found a different man trying to cross into the border and are in the process of sending him over to us. This man, they say is a destitute that lives in one of the tents near the border and probably lost his way and ventured too close to the border. Although, did you find anything on him? If he seems clean...”

At that moment, Victor could no longer follow the Chief. He paused for a moment, looked at the Chief, and then at the said wrong man, both of whom were oblivious of the recent developments. He carefully unhooked the old man from the MEM and asked the subordinate to switch the machine off. While still wondering how he’d go about taking the old man home, Victor managed to crack a smile, for the first time in several years.

“On the contrary, Chief, I think we finally have the right man. My resignation papers are in the second drawer in your cabinet. I guess it’s time. Time for me to go home.”


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