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Harriet the Torturer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Warning: descriptions of graphic torture, sex and extreme politics. Scenes of a disturbing nature. The life and times of Harriet: political enforcer. This was published here as a book some while back, republished now as a short story with a very different ending. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay. (4,000 words, 8 chapters).

Submitted: October 12, 2019

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Submitted: October 12, 2019

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1: The Commandant

“Yes, I remember that first day, the day I was recruited. It was like being back at school. We all filed into this big hall with a stage in front. The floor was wooden parquet, I recall, old and stained.

"The room was filled with rows of hard wooden chairs, the stackable ones. People occupied all the space available. I still remember how uncomfortable those chairs were.”

(Sharply) “How many of you?”

“A hundred and twenty. Four classes. The hard chairs were deliberate, I found that out later.”

“Where was the school?”

“It was somewhere near Bracknell, there's a lot of military and police schools down there. And it was the afternoon - we’d had regular classes in the morning. The sky was covered with black clouds, and you could hear rain gusting against the windows. Then the commandant came onto the stage and took the microphone.”

“So this would be Commandant Trevor Saunders? No doubt wearing his usual black leathers?”

“A lot of us thought he looked very impressive with his combed brown hair and military moustache. He always seemed very confident. He was the voice of authority for us - we were all rather scared of him, actually.”

“So this was about six weeks into your interrogation course. You’d done the basics, passed the initial tests. You were seventeen years old and had volunteered as a police cadet from school. Were you enjoying the course? Did you make friends?”

“It was all right. A lot of it was remedial. Literacy, writing skills, learning to use the computer so you could write the reports. There was me, Alice and Maud. We all came from Halifax though we hadn’t known each other there. But we were sort of similar and we got on.”

“OK, Harriet, so what happened next?”

“The commandant said this was like a special test, for our aptitude. He said it didn’t matter how we did, it was more a matter of career path.”

“Did you understand what he was getting at?”

“Not really. There’d been some funny looks that morning from the staff and from some of the more senior students. But they all stayed shtum. Discipline was pretty intense, you know.”

“So Harriet, you knew this afternoon session was important but you didn’t know why. What happened next?”

“The commandant beckoned to his right and two guards carried this funny chair onto the stage. It was black and metal, it looked heavy. Just behind came two technical staff who pushed a trolly with a solid black box and some stuff on it.”

“Did you have any inkling of what this meant?”

“Not at all. I said to Alice, who was sat to my left, I said, ‘Alice perhaps the commandant is tired and is going to take a rest!’ and she giggled and said, ‘It’s for one of us. The tiredest student. They’ll call you up, sit you on that and ask you questions!’ and we both laughed.”

“Still a joke then, at that point?”

2: The Prisoner

“We really didn’t know. Then Maud, who was on my right, gave me a poke in the ribs and said, ‘Look at that’.

"From the right-hand side of the stage two guards in black leather uniforms were bringing some guy out. He was some young skinhead punk. Looked like he might have been fat once.

"I said, ‘Look at his tattoos, I don’t understand them,’ and Alice hissed, ‘They’re bruises,’ and I looked again and saw she was right.”

“What did you think, when you saw the prisoner?”

“I thought it was interesting: that we’d spent six weeks studying all the theory about interrogation and never actually seen a prisoner. Now finally we were going to see interrogation in practice. I was really pleased - quite excited in fact.”

“How about your friends?”

“I thought Alice seemed a bit tense. She was always the imaginative one. Prone to flights of fancy. Maud seemed interested but a bit remote.”

“Not you though.”

“I was bubbling. They stood the prisoner facing us in front of the metal chair. I saw that the commandant had moved to the very edge of the stage. Someone had put a comfy seat there and he sat down to watch. There were the couple of guards either side of the prisoner, and then the two technicians, who were sat at the trolley. One was fiddling with the apparatus, the second was unravelling what looked like crocodile clips attached to wires.”

“Did you know what was going to happen?”

“Of course not. We hadn’t covered any of this in class.”

“OK.”

“The man was wearing pyjamas. The guards took them off and then he was naked. He looked pretty frightened, like he was shaking …”

“How far away was he from where you were sitting?”

“Well, it was a big hall and we were not especially close to the front. I think there were twelve or so rows in front of us, and then the stage was raised enough that we could see it over people’s heads. But we had a good view. And then the staff member with the clips brought them around the front, where the prisoner could see them, and he gurgled and sagged - the guards held him up, and then they pushed him on to the chair and strapped him to it.”

“How did the class react to that?”

There was a collective gasp, actually, and then a quick murmur of chat - I think we were just agreeing what we were seeing - and then you could hear a pin drop.”

“The commandant didn’t say anything?”

“Not then. But I did notice that the side-doors opened rather quietly and some cleaners came in to the body of the hall to join us. They had mops and buckets. They had rather sour expressions on their faces, rather tight-lipped. I didn’t know why they were going to clean now while a lecture was going on.”

“Proceed.”

“The technician with the clips put one on the prisoner's left hand, the fingers I think, and the other on his right hand. Then he stepped back to the trolley. I noticed that the guards were standing well back.”

“And everyone in the room was attentive and focused?”

“Absolutely. You could have heard a pin drop. And the technician looked at the commandant and he nodded, and then the technician turned back and did something with his device and the prisoner jolted. A most unearthly scream came from his lips - I think I once heard the same sound from a cat which had been run over - and then he was hit again with a shock, and all his limbs jerked and he screamed again. Then he vomited a kind of drool out of his mouth and sagged on his straps. He was making a funny gurgling sound.”

3: Selection

“What did you think?”

“I thought he seemed a bit used to it, as a matter of fact. That this must have happened before because he seemed familiar with the process. I thought they should have tried to get information out of him sooner, when this was all a lot fresher to him.”

“Did you notice anything else?”

“Well, everything had stopped on the stage. It was almost as if they were waiting for something. But there was subdued pandemonium in the hall. Many of the girls were crying, and more than a few had thrown up. The cleaners were already making their rounds. Then the commandant stood up. He seemed very relaxed to me, almost bored, as if this was something he had done many, many times before, and he came to the microphone to address us.”

“What did he say?”

“He reminded us that this was a special session and that it was not mandatory to remain. There would be no consequences for anyone leaving, that it was like a career path assessment only. He said that unfortunately, things were going to get a lot worse, and that anyone who wanted to could leave now, with nothing at all held against them.”

“Did anyone go?”

“Yes, almost everyone! Alice went without a second glance at me or Maud. I looked at Maud. Her face was like a mask and she had sweat all over it. I was quite surprised. I was just thinking how interesting this was. I couldn’t understand all the emotionalism. The commandant had been quiet while the hall emptied out. Then he said that if at any stage things got too intense - yes, that was the word he used - people should feel free to make their way out. It was perfectly OK and no-one would lose any marks.”

“Maud stayed?”

“For a little while longer. It did get more intense. I knew what they were doing, of course. I soon twigged it. They were choosing more sensitive areas - the genitals, the tongue; they were making the shocks longer too; and increasing the voltage.”

“How long did all this go on for?”

“I was looking at the wall clock. We’d started at two pm. The prisoner’s interrogation, if I can call it that - no-one actually asked him any questions which surprised me - well, the shocks started at two twenty, and we were out of there by three.”

“When did Maud break?”

“I’m not sure I’d call it break - perhaps she’d just seen enough. But it was when his arm broke and the end protruded from his skin. I found out later that’s when the voltage is too high. It’s deprecated really - you don’t want to leave marks. Still, I understand why they had to do it. That’s how you learn. Anyway, that’s when Maud put her hand over her mouth and hurried off to the exit.”

“How did it finish?”

"At five to three there were eight of us left. We had been waved to the front row to see exactly what was happening. They'd applied so much voltage in the end that I could smell the burning. He was barely conscious of course. They carted the body away soon after that and the commandant himself came down to say a few words to each of us. He said ‘Well done’ to me. Then a staff tutor came and took our names and we were taken off to a different wing of the building.”

“Did you see Alice or Maud again?”

“No. After that we were segregated, and we did our own, special syllabus.”

“And finally, how do you think it would have gone if there had been any boys in the class?”

(Snorts). “Boys are nothing like as tough as girls in this game.”

4: The A-Team

"Harriet, describe yourself."

"My name is Harriet Corbyn and I am twenty three. I have blue eyes and short brown hair. I am five foot four and weigh just over ten stone."

"Describe your surroundings."

"I am sitting at a table in a room with white walls and ceiling. The floor is mottled wooden tiles. There are no windows and I don't see a door. This is a typical interrogation room."

"Thank you, Harriet. Who am I?"

"You are Authority."

"Describe me."

"You seem to be opposite me, the other side of the table, but I can't quite make you out."

'We can change what she's wearing, can we?'

'Yes.' (Points).

'I select from this menu here? Might as well add some interest.'

"What are you wearing, Harriet?"

"A low-cut white minidress. I like it. It's a contrast with my tan. It's a bit short for me."

"Tell me about what happened after your entry into Torture School. I understand there were two streams, A and B?"

(Snorts). "The B-team were the sadists. No finesse at all. The stupid ones who'd cut your fingers off one by one and enjoy it."

"Were they used in interrogation?"

"Hardly ever. Half the time they were high on drugs. Government issue! Even their existence was a carefully-guarded leak .. "

[Pause].

 'Did Harriet sort of make a joke there? That's a first.'

[Resume].

".. because the Government wanted it known what awaited people who resisted. The most gruesome stories were rife in oppositional circles; mostly they were accurate."

"But you were part of Team-A, the proper interrogators. How did that work?"

"We applied psychology. This was a couple of years after the elections. There'd been that flight of capital out of the country and the economy was collapsing. The Government blamed speculators and right-wing saboteurs and most people went along with that."

"But it was the left-wing intellectuals who were the problem? The ones who wanted you to complete the revolution?"

"They were mostly young men. Fancied themselves Bolsheviks. We'd show them the instruments: crude stuff like flaying knives, crush-cut-burn, that sort of thing. Show them videos of Team-B and lock them up for a night's reflection. Amazing the change in mindset by the next morning."

"All very familiar stuff. Is that when you met Seb?"

"Yes. He had been made a junior minister in the security apparatus. He was very defensive of his father, took a keen interest in the plots against him. It was personal with him."

"I believe he participated in interrogations with you?"

Harriet blushes, "He wasn't meant to, he wasn't security trained. But, you know, the Leader's son .. . He was surprisingly good. We did Good-Cop, Bad-Cop."

"Which was he?"

"Of course he was the bad one! He was furious with them for undermining his dad. In political terms he was what they called a 'tankie', like those who'd supported what the old Soviet Union had done, sending the army against popular protests in Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the 50s and 60s. He was robust."

"How did your double-act work?"

" Nothing unusual. He'd rant and rave and threaten them and slap them around a bit. Then he'd be called away and I'd come in and be nice to them. Sympathetic. Draw them out a bit. Show them a bit of affection. It was information we were after, after all."

5: Sebastian

"These were smart young men. You'd think they would have seen through that?"

"You try thinking straight when you're bone-tired, frightened, bruised and drugged-up. Half of them thought I was their mother; the other half treated me like their partner or girlfriend."

"And did you ever..?"

(Calmly). "Off course. I was there to do the mission. Anything goes. Actually that was one of the most effective tactics. We had an adjoining bedroom. Very cosy, very relaxing."

"And that was where you and Seb?"

"It got him excited. He loved the power. Afterwards he would almost drag me in there. He could be quite rough .. and quite endearing."

“So tell me exactly what he ..”

[Pause].

You can’t ask that.

Why not?'

It’s not germane to the line of questioning.

How do you know that? It might be very relevant to ..

It would be construed as prurient. You haven’t shown cause. The session is all being recorded.

[Resume].

“So tell me exactly what he did when things began to go really pear-shaped, when the mass unemployment started, and the food riots. When things were paralysed.”

“I was never interested in politics but I could see he was getting very stressed. He was rougher with the prisoners - there were so many! He was rougher with me! And then he said we might have to go away.”

“You were OK with that?”

“I didn’t know what he was talking about. But the way things were going, what with the new Government about to take over. It was obvious they were going to shut us down. They said that there would be trials. Well, you had to be worried.”

“So how did it work, the escape I mean.”

“He just said to me one weekend, it was probably the last few days of the Corbyn Government, he said, ‘I’ve got the tickets, we must go tomorrow. Otherwise they’ll stop us. And you’ll be arrested.’”

“OK, Harriet, and this is important, where did you go?

[Pause].

6: Sir Perry Henderson

The interrogator is Sir Perry Henderson, late from New Left Review and now a left-cover for the new right-wing regime. He is a Marxist academic at LSE, in his forties, softly-spoken, looks like a sleek, well-fed, well-groomed beatnik.

The embodiment of radical chic.

He is accompanied in the VR room at Imperial College by Dr Angela Raven, specialist in synthetic personality interaction. She is in her thirties and dresses the sexy-bluestocking: tight blouse, short black skirt, thick black tights, flat shoes. Her long brown hair is pulled back, hitched behind her ears.

No concessions to the warmth of summer.

She is his conscience here.

Harriet’ is a neural-net/expert-system hybrid synthesised from detailed records, transcripts and profiles compiled by the previous government’s Ministry for Augmented Interrogation Methods. It's more generally known by its acronym.

The personality-reconstruction is based on the records of one Harriet Corbyn.

Unfortunately, the records stop at the point where Harriet disappeared.

Surely buried in Harriet’s psyche are the clues that will solve this mystery? And who better than the well-known left-winger Perry Henderson to follow the trail?

No-one could accuse him of a right-wing vendetta.

---

Why did Henderson agree to act as an interrogator for the new regime?

He had spent a lifetime analysing the failures in Chile, Venezuela and half a dozen other left-wing regimes which didn’t have the guts to eviscerate the bourgeoisie when they had the chance. Henderson knew he had been on the previous government’s blacklist. If it hadn’t fallen when it did, he would have been facing Harriet or one of her colleagues.

It would have been him facing Team-B!

So now it’s payback time.

Harriet's ground is, however, very well-trod. Virtual-Harriet has been rolled-over a dozen times already without success The neural-net model doesn’t know where real-Harriet went. Perhaps only a real left-winger can get inside the virtual person's mindset.

Can put the subtle clues together.

“Fancy dinner tonight?” says Perry Henderson to Angela Raven.

7: Angela and Perry

She meets him in a studenty-touristy restaurant off Kingsway. She has made no concessions: a quick wash-around but the same clothes as before.

Why is she here? She finds Henderson a prancing popinjay, a vain turncoat, a Marxist Knight.

'Give me a break,' she thinks.

The place is crowded; LSE students are the richest in the land.

Perry knows his way round a menu, he is a decadent connoisseur. For Angela, who eats to refuel, his selections (a mini symphony of taste and texture) are a delight.

He's interesting too. Not afraid to talk shop.

"After the Labour government collapsed, the leadership team, the Corbyns and the McDonnells, decamped to Moscow. And there they sit to this day, fulminating and complaining. They've forgotten nothing and learned nothing. Didn't even have the decency to do an Allende!"

"But not Harriet," observes Angela redundantly.

"No. Not Harriet. Where is she?"

Perry amuses her. The secret of his success. He talks about the finer points of Greek cuisine: gemista to die for, spiced souvlaki. He shares gossip: politicians, household names in the media. He knows everyone!

He solicits her opinions, really listens, he's not putting it on. He draws her out with witty commentary. He’s irreverent, indiscreet; makes her complicit.

Despite herself, she is charmed.

It's been so long.

Yes, this is how it's done, she tells herself.

---

They walk down Kingsway in the balmy evening air. There is artistry in hand-holding, she thinks. He curls his fingers around her own, explores her palm, squeezes her hand affectionately.

---

He has a penthouse flat above LSE. It's convenient for his lectures - how he pulls them in! - and for the late-night political review show he hosts on the BBC.

---

He runs his hand down her back, his fingers trace her vertebrae, tracking the waves of a roller-coaster.

They are naked in his bed.

He is languid, ironic, seeks approval for each new act of impropriety. They face each other, side by side. He presses her against him. She feels his rough chest against the underside of her breasts - gives a gasp of pure pleasure.

It's been so long.

The faintest pause. She lifts her knee, drapes her leg over his waist.

He brushes her lips with his own; dabs humorously with the tip of his tongue; licks her some more. He smiles and waits for her response. Rolls her on her back.

Not so urbane now.

8: Harriet

Angela and Perry lie companionably side by side. His hand rests on her belly. Her hand rests on his.

"Harriet is no intellectual," he says, "She got what she wanted when she got Seb."

He waits a beat.

"God, I bet she's hot in bed!" he says teasingly, glancing at her.

"I think they've got themselves a nice little dacha somewhere near Moscow," he concludes, "False ids under the protection of the Russian government. That's Harriet's idea of heaven: her own little place and her man. I think that'll be the conclusion of my report."

Angela thinks that's Harriet's idea of hell.

Typical intellectual that he is, Perry has a blind spot for the ambitious, competent doer.

No, Harriet is somewhere else entirely.

Should she tell him?

No, despite all her faults, Angela rather likes Harriet.

------

The right-wing, constitutional coup was months coming. The Corbyn leadership team anticipated it well in advance - even if they were too politically-befuddled to defeat it.

Some of the senior security people started to worry. Their leadership might get asylum in some foreign part, but what about them?

No chance.

They needed a figurehead, a lightning rod for the show-trials to come. Seb was completely on board. After all, he'd participated in some of the worst excesses.

He made sure resources were found.

The name 'Harriet' began to surface. First in left-wing samizdat, later in the mainstream media. She was the Corbyn Government’s most-feared interrogator. Not just brutal but clever and subtle.

A Mistress of Pain.

Close enough to Seb to take his name and - it was reported - his bed.

Harriet was public enemy number one for the reactionary opposition. This devil-woman would be a major target, once they had seized power.

---

Dr Angela Raven was secretly complicit in all the arrangements. Her special skills were central to the exercise but she had plenty of help. Masses of data had to be crunched, social media hacked, hard copy fabricated, deepfake videos concocted.

She put a lot of herself into her work.

People’s memories are very malleable. Plenty of people 'remembered' Harriet, or agreed that they knew someone who had once met 'her'. Some took a little persuading - but that could be arranged.

After the putsch, the hunt for Harriet took on the character of a crusade for the new administration. It was a staple for the media, soaked up public attention, resources and effort.

Yet months passed with very little progress.

There were people who were rather pleased about that.

---

“If Harriet were here now, what would you do to her?” whispers Angela in Perry’s attentive ear.

“I think I’d have to immobilise her, stop her escaping, then extract information in any way possible!”

He looms above her in the semi-darkness; looks down at her, his expression mock-fierce.

She grips him firmly with her arms and knees and pulls him closer.

Show me.

 

--- END ---

 


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