I didn't recognize the insignia on the man's uniform. He was so high up that his rank didn't officially exist, that he didn't officially exist.
"The key, Michael,” he said, “I need to know where you hid the key."
"I don't know. Don't remember. It was so long ago. Why does it matter? The war's over now. The Unit is gone. The Citadel is gone. Why does the key still matter?"
"You don't need to know why, Michael. You really don't need to know."
He stressed the word 'really', stressed it in such a way that a shiver went all the way through me.
"So much happened that day," I said, "So many people died. I saw some of them, beside me, watched them take a bullet and curl up in throes of agony. I remember every bloody second of every bloody death, but I don't remember what I did with the damn key."
"Dr. Grayson is here to help you," was all he said in reply, gesturing to a white haired man in a white coat. "He's going to hypnotize you, help you to remember."
I said nothing, just sat and watched as the old man started to sway his watch back and forth across my line of vision. "You are feeling sleepy, Michael," he said. "I want you to relax and step back into that day. The day you were given the key."
I was feeling sleepy. The watch was making me confused and dizzy. I closed my eyes to regain control of my senses. When I opened them I was back in the Unit.
I realized that Colonel Throwback was in front of me and clicked my heels as I straightened to attention and saluted. He waved aside my formalities.
"No time for that, soldier. The Citadel is nearly taken. When they capture me, which they will, they will do anything to get this key."
The key was on a chain round his neck. As he spoke, he removed it and handed it to me.
"The enemy is pretty ruthless," he said, "and will torture me in ways I simply can't imagine. I just know it won't be pleasant."
He paused to sigh. At this point our hands touched, the key passed from his to mine. I felt it cold and metallic in my palm and did all I could to stave off panic.
"I'd like to think I could withstand the pain, hide the key someplace and keep it a secret. But that level of pain, nothing can prepare you for it. The key isn't safe if I know where it is, or if I know to whom I've given it. Don't ever tell me your name soldier."
With that he turned and walked off. Walked off with an assured step, even though he knew his fate: death in the most painful way imaginable. No, not even imaginable, torture so perverse no human mind could even conceive of it. Yet I could even perceive a spring in his step. They would win the day, would win the battle, would win total control over every cell in his body, but the key was safe.
Safe in my hand!
I turned and fled. I knew exactly where to hide it. At one point as I was running, a sergeant ordered me to stop, but I ran straight past. "Errand for the Colonel, Sir," I shouted. I got a kick from this, from ignoring authority, something I'd not dared to do in the two years I'd been in the Unit.
The canteen was empty of all life, everyone else was busy fighting. I walked up to the Coca Cola machine in the corner. I put the key to my lips, a goodbye kiss, and inserted it into the coin slot. I heard it rattle down to the money tray below.
Panic froze me. Christ, I'm stupid; I should've checked there was no-one watching. I turned around, nothing, nobody. I was all alone. I realized what had made the noise; the machine had released a can of Coke. I took it out of the dispensing tray and placed it in the internal pocket of my uniform, for later.
I left the canteen and returned to the front line; 477 men lost their lives that day and I saw many of them die. Again. I watched them all die for a second time, knew when each death was going to happen and there was nothing I could do to save any of them.
Eventually we had lost and the few of us that survived waited to be captured.
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