Theodore watched the SWAT team coming up the hallway; he had heard them stampeding up the stairwell, yelling as they came. As he opened his door to the hallway, he saw his supervisor getting off the elevator; drawn by the noise and the sight of an armed SWAT strike team charging through the hospital, several doors had opened and curious workers and patients clustered around them, watching.
He watched in amazement as the soldiers surrounded him. Now they were yelling at him, ordering him to kneel and surrender. His heart was pounding with panic. His head spun, his vision blurred to a flat image of fast moving figures, with guns. Two soldiers grabbed him by the arms and threw him to the ground. He manged to turn his face off to the side before his head banged on the tile floor. A headache exploded behind his eyes. He said nothing; did not cry out. What good would that have done? Somehow, they had found out about the book. It was inevitable; he had known that from the start. He wondered what had happened to the old man.
They took him away in handcuffs, with a crowd of people watching as they walked him through the hospital hallways and down the stairs, from his maintenance room on the third floor to the basement parking lot. They bundled him into a closed black vehicle; he noticed that without an audience, the soldiers were a lot gentler and more considerate. A soldier chained his ankles to large rings on the floor of the car.
They left Theodore sitting alone in a comfortable chair in a windowless waiting room that was much like any waiting room in any office. His chair faced a door that appeared to lead to an inner office. There were the usual drab paintings on the wall and chairs like Theodore’s stood empty around the room. There was a small table in one corner, on which sat a pile of magazines. A clock on the wall told the wrong time; after a while Theodore realized that it was dead. It felt like he had been waiting for several hours when finally a man entered. Under his white lab coat he wore a shirt and tie and in his hands he carried a clipboard and pencil. His hands were very clean, his nails carefully manicured. He approached Theodore and stood directly in front of him, uncomfortably close. Theodore wanted to reach out and push the man away but thought that his intentions might be misunderstood, construed as guilt and hostility, so he continued to sit, leaving the man in charge.
“Are you Theodore Malsch?”
“Yes, that’s my name. I’m Theodore Malsch. But who are you?”
“I’m the Investigator,” the man answered, leafing through documents on the clipboard. On hearing this, Theodore became alarmed and started to rise from his chair. The Investigator put a firm hand on Theodore’s shoulder to stop him. “Please remain seated. Why do you claim to be Theodore Malsch? Who are you actually?”
“What do you mean? I’m Theodore, that’s me. Theodore Malsch.”
“Where were you born? And please, look around you. Isn’t this a nice room? Aren’t you comfortable? There is no need for any more lies. The Quarterback has confirmed the Anomaly. Let us please have the necessary data so that we can perform the reconciliation. And you can be out of here.” He smiled reassuringly.
“Where are we anyway? And why am I here?” Theodore didn’t try to get out of the chair this time, but he slid to the edge of the seat. He wondered if getting angry would help his situation.
The Investigator looked at him with a wry smile. “That information is classified,” he said. “If I told you, then I’d have to kill you.”
“What? That’s crazy. I am Theodore Malsch. That’s my name. From ever.”
“What’s crazy is you trying to bluff your way out of this. You are not in the Q-base. You don’t exist. Where did you come from? That is the answer we require.”
“And it’s the answer you already have. I’m an American, a citizen of the Federal Territories. I was born right here, eleven September, twenty-one fifty.”
“I can’t reconcile that response with the Q-base. It is not a valid response,” the Investigator answered dryly.
Theodore took a deep breath and wished there was a window he could look out of right at this moment. But all he had were the paintings on the wall; one of them was attractive … in a somewhat frightening way. It was a perspective painting of a lighted hallway, executed in rich browns. Interesting, the way it drew his eyes, sucking him into its depths.
“Excuse me a moment,” said the Investigator. He turned, walked over to the opposing door and knocked once. Theodore saw a light go on behind the door and heard a heavy tread approaching. The door was opened a crack and the Investigator whispered something to whoever was there.
“Yes,” said the voice behind the door, shutting it firmly, with a loud click. The Investigator walked slowly back to again face Theodore.
“You were making travel plans. Why did you come here? Where are your accomplices?” he said.
“I’ve done nothing wrong, have I? I just wanted to see …” Theodore stopped, realizing that he had opened the door to a line of questioning that he didn’t want, that he felt sure would end badly for him.
“Yes. See what?”
“The jungle. The Amazon.”
“I don’t know.” He spoke, heard himself and wondered if he should say more. “It’s just that … I wondered …”
“Yes. You wondered … ”
“Is it still there?”
“Is what still there?”
“You know, the Amazon. The jungle. I’ve never seen anything like that, so I wonder if … it could be.”
“Could be what?”
“Nothing. Just be. Like me.”
“Perhaps yes. Just like you indeed.”
“What do you mean, why are you talking to me like that?”
“You know why.”
“Okay, so I know why, maybe, so why don’t you just come right out and say it? What’s all this cat and mouse about?”
“Good. Finally you’re beginning to understand. Then why don’t you tell me about it.”
Theodore hesitated on the brink of the abyss. Then he leaped into the dark.
“It’s about the book, isn’t it?”
The Investigator cocked his head to one side and maintained an expressionless silence. Theodore waited.
“Excuse me,” said the Investigator, turning once more and walking to the office door. He knocked once, and as before, a light went on and a heavy tread approached the door. Again there was a whispered conversation that Theodore could not understand. Perhaps it was in another language, he thought. The Investigator returned to stand before him again.
“Why did you do it? Do you hate America? What have we done to you? Did you not find happiness here?”
“What? What are you talking about? I didn’t know it was contraband. What happiness are you talking about? I’m Theodore Malsch, a citizen of the Federal Territories. Why would I hate my country?”
“So that’s it then; you’re a smuggler. What did you bring here and who’s your supplier?”
“Listen, I’m not a smuggler. I work at the hospital. I bought a book from a man on the street. I didn’t know it was contraband.”
“What’s his name, your contact?”
“He’s not my contact. I don’t know him. He was just an old man in the street. I don’t know where he came from. I don’t know where he went. I paid him for a book; you know the title – Mother of God. That’s all. It was a book about the Amazon, about how it was back then, more than a hundred years ago. I wanted to see if it was still there.” Theodore began to sob softly.
“We don’t care about all that. We will find your old man, your contact, mister whatever your name is. Theodore Malsch, the real Theodore Malsch, was a hero of the Homeland. With the rest of his high school class, he enlisted during a time of engagement, when his Homeland had to be defended. He gave his life for the Homeland.”
“But,” said Theodore through his tears, “I didn’t go. It was ninth grade; they … we … were children. I saw … I couldn’t go.”
The Investigator was suddenly enraged, the fire flying to his eyes, his body tightening as he moved to within an inch of Theodore.
“Do not speak of these things. You have no right. We see what you did. Somehow you stole his identity, but you could not alter the record. Of course you couldn’t; the Quarterback is unbreakable. It is over. The Anomaly has been discovered. The record will be reconciled.”
The Investigator returned to the office door and knocked; as before, the light went on and the heavy tread could be heard, approaching slowly. The door opened, and whispered words were again exchanged. But this time the door stayed open as the Investigator returned to Theodore.
“Get up,” he said.
Theodore rose shakily.
“What happens now?” he asked, trying to stay calm but his hands were cold. He rubbed his palms together for some warmth.
“Nothing. Please go to the next station. Oh, and goodbye, Mister … Malsch?”
“Yes, goodbye.” Theodore turned to go, then stopped. “Wait,” he said, “Is it there? Is the jungle still there?”
The Investigator stopped but did not turn around. Over his shoulder he spoke his last words to Theodore Malsch.
“Of course,” he said.