Her face was blank mask, and she knew it. She practiced each day in front of the small, grimy mirror, removing every trace of emotion and thought from her features.
Amanda used to cry when they questioned her, hot fury and poisonous despair destroying her control, but she had been a child. Now she faced them in perfect silence, and still they knew nothing.
It wasn’t easy to purge the effects of feelings. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel at all, but rather she had trained her body to no longer respond unless she willed it to. Her training was far more painful than the questioning ever was, but she turned herself to stone in order to survive.
Again today she brought up the memories of the CPD bludgeoning her father to death with their batons, then of her mother stalking purposefully from the porch. She saw again how the armoured men wilted before the woman, tearing off their helmets and vomiting as they fell, great welts appearing suddenly across their faces. And inevitably she saw them draw their pistols and fire round after round into her body, continuing long after she was dead.
The memories hadn’t changed, and her mind’s reaction was still horror and shock and rage, but her face remained cool, her heart rate steady. Amanda was the master of herself.
She started in surprise as the door to her room banged open behind her. She felt the rush of adrenaline, both familiar and frustrating as it threatened her facade, and she fought down the reaction her body was insisting upon. In seconds she was ready, and she turned around.
Brant stood in the doorway, silhouetted by the blue-white fluorescents buzzing in the corridor behind him. He stepped into the light of her room; he was wearing his crisp, brown uniform and polished black boots. She couldn’t imagine how she hadn’t heard him coming.
“It’s time, Amanda” he said quietly. He was always quiet. Like a ghost.
She looked at his grey eyes and saw the same thing she always saw: pity.
She nodded and followed him from the room.
They passed by dozens of doors identical to her own, each home to a pathetic soul whose parents had been murdered by the Citizen Protection Division. Most were twisted wraiths, barely recognizable as human. Some were loud in their defiance, but she knew their fear was louder still. Some rooms were empty, the former occupants having been “set free”.
Only she had survived intact, overcome the torture, the drugs, the equipment, the provocations, and the endless, endless questions. She was a rock.
Eventually the too-bright hallway ended at a too-familiar steel door with a six-inch safety glass window to the other side. She didn’t need to look; it was the room she had visited every day for longer than she could understand, and she knew every inch of it in terrifying detail.
Brant reached for the handle and pulled the door open on its shrieking hinges, then waved Amanda into the room. The scent of bleach and latex assaulted her and her stomach rebelled. She held her breath for just a moment before willing herself to breathe normally.
There was a man seated in a stainless steel chair in the centre of the room. He was wearing the same kind of uniform as Brant did, although it was clearly of better quality. He was reading the contents of a file folder which had a photo of her fastened to the corner with a paperclip. He looked up and smiled.
“Come in, Amanda; I’ve been waiting for you. I’m Solomon, Agent Solomon, with the CPD. Please sit.”
He motioned to the only other piece of furniture in the room, a chair placed opposite him and a few feet away. His face was open and honest-looking, but she knew better. She stood impassively just inside the door. Agent Solomon’s smile became slightly forced.
“Please,” he repeated, “join me for a moment.”
She relented and sat in the chair, neither relaxed nor tense. She wore her mask and she sensed she needed it now more than ever.
He continued to peruse the file for a moment, then looked into her eyes. “You’re a Pusher.”
She did not respond.
He smiled again, humourlessly this time. “You’re a Pusher, and we both know it. You’ve been able to Push for years, and you’re the best I’ve ever seen at keeping it to yourself, but you’re still a Pusher.”
She looked at him without expression.
He leaned back and crossed one leg over the other knee. “You see, I’ve been watching you for a long time. Since shortly after you arrived here, actually. Because both your parents were Pushers, so we figured there was a good chance you were too.” He paused. “We weren’t aware that your mother had the skill when we went to apprehend your father, you know. It wasn’t until she attacked our men that we found out.”
Solomon started to flip through the folder, pausing to turn it sideways from time to time. Amanda assumed he was looking at photos; she couldn’t see to be sure. He made small noises to himself as he turned pages.
“Do you know how long you’ve been here?” He waited for her to respond, but continued after a moment. “One thousand, four hundred sixty days.” No reaction. “That’s four years, Amanda. Or it will be tomorrow.”
She felt her eyes widen. Four years. No wonder she was being questioned by an Agent. No one lasted four years in a CPD orphanage. The law said that after four years they had to let you go. She felt hope bubble up hot inside her, and she crushed it mercilessly.
Solomon continued. “So that’ll be it. Tomorrow you’ll be a free woman. It’s never happened here before, you know. No one has ever left this facility alive. Ever.”
His casually polite voice had turned gritty and dark on the last word, and Amanda became certain she would not break the streak. She had long ago resigned herself to dying in this prison, and her dull despair reasserted itself.
Solomon started to tap his fingernail against the chair, the metallic ring echoing ominously.
“Do you understand me, Amanda?”
Uncharacteristically, Amanda swallowed and then spoke, her voice rusty with disuse.
“I understand. You’re going to kill me,” she replied.
His serpent’s smile reappeared. “No, I don’t want to kill you. I want to hire you.”