Travel Agency: Scouts, part 5 of 6

“Who are you and what have you done with the real Keisha Grant?”

This story is set, with Morpheus' permission, in his Travel Agency universe.


Travel Agency: Scouts

Part 5 of 6

by Trismegistus Shandy


This story is set, with Morpheus' permission, in the same setting as his story “The Travel Agency” and its three sequels. Thanks to Morpheus for his feedback on the first draft.

The original stories and this one need not be read in any particular order.

A commenter on a previous chapter remarked that it was hard to keep the scouts' names straight. I'll try to fix that in a future edition. For now, here's a list:

  • Keisha / Tariq -- former spymaster, retired after his legs were amputated.
  • Stephanie / ul-Kalsim -- Tariq' successor as spymaster, the head of this expedition.
  • Lauren / the Subtle One / Sumalm -- a wizard in the sultan's service, less powerful than the Grey One / Ms. G. but still formidable
  • Rae Nan / Tvalenn -- a camel-centaur and spy
  • Natalie / ul-Balimmu -- an ifrit, friendlier to humans than most ifrits; a friend of the Subtle One

She found herself, still dressed in the same clothes, lying on a narrow, hard bed in a small white room. Not Tariq’s room at home, nor Keisha’s bedroom in the apartment; it had no furniture but the bed, one of this world’s self-cleaning chamber pots in a corner without the usual screen around it, and a washbasin. She sat up and looked blearily around her for an indeterminate time. Her left arm felt slightly sore; she looked and saw that there was a bandage stuck with some kind of glue to the sore spot, in the crook of her arm. She stood up and went to the door.

It wouldn’t open. There wasn’t even a handle on the inside.

She banged on the door a few times, with no immediate effect.

She peed, washed her hands — with only water; there was no soap — then drank a little, cupping water in her hands and raising them to her mouth. Then, finding nothing else to do, she sat on the bed and thought.

Twice she and Natalie had seen someone at the museum, and then the same person at a club. It seemed likely that the man who’d approached and talked to her the night before last was working with the woman; they’d been more or less circumspectly following them from place to place. But who were they and why were they interested in them — or her? Did they suspect that they were visitors from another world? Or were they enemies of the real Keisha? She knew nearly nothing about Keisha, except that she was a college student, and had a boyfriend but wasn’t sleeping with him... and, of course, that she was friends with Stephanie.

There was a rattle at the door; she jumped up, but it opened almost before she was on her feet. There were a man and woman in the doorway — the woman was the person who had drugged her at the club last night; the man she didn’t recognize.

“Come with us,” the man said. She followed them, looking for a chance to escape.

The hallway they walked along was windowless. She had no idea in what direction the outside doors might be. After a short distance they led her into a larger room, with a table and several chairs. They gestured for her to take a seat in one of the chairs, and she did; they didn’t sit, but stood on either side of the door.

“Why did you bring me here?” she asked. They remained silent.

“Who are you?” Again, no answer.

A short time later, another two men entered the room. One was the dark-skinned man who had asked her to dance the night before last; the other was lighter skinned and older, with receding gray hair.

“Ms. Grant,” the older man said. “We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“What about? Why did you bring me here?” She remembered now that Keisha had signed her note with a two-part name, “Keisha Grant.”

“I said we’ll ask questions, not answer them. A few days ago you paid $500, via MasterCard, to an organization known only as ‘The Travel Agency.’ Why?”

She thought back to things Melanie had said about the Gray One’s organization and the visitors... “For a vacation.”

“Yes, that would be very natural, would it not? You asked your employer for six days off work while the university was on Spring Break — natural enough — and on the first day of Spring Break, you pay a travel agency for what will show up on your next month’s credit card bill as a ‘unique destination package’. That’s natural enough, too. Except that you then proceed to stay at home, going to the Science and Technology Museum with some of your friends, going out clubbing, and inviting your friends over for a sleepover. You could have done all that without paying the travel agency anything. You’re not even getting any discount on your museum ticket. That’s a little odd, don’t you think?”

“It may be odd, but why is it your business?”

“I said we were here to ask questions, not answer them. When you spoke to my friend Mr. Wilson here at the Vortex, night before last, you told him you were new in town.”

“Yes...”

“Although you’ve lived here all your life?”

“...I don’t feel any obligation to tell the truth to a stranger who is transparently trying to seduce me.”

“Touché. That might not be odd in isolation, but... You said they didn’t have music like that where you came from. The Wild Girls are said to be pretty good — I am only repeating what the music critics say in the newspaper; I haven’t heard them myself — but are they really so unusual, so beyond your experience? Your credit card records show a number of concert tickets in the last three years.”

“What can I say? They were good. I enjoyed dancing to their music, and so did my friends.”

“Including, I note, a Yeah Yeah Yeahs concert five months ago. Do you remember that?”

Of course Keisha didn’t remember that, but she made something up: “They were pretty good too.”

“...At which the Wild Girls were the opening act.”

Keisha wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but the man seemed to think it was important.

“You’ve asked me several questions, but the question I find most interesting is one you haven’t asked. Would you care to guess what it is?”

Keisha thought. “Where are my friends? Did you do something to them too?”

“Bzzt! Wrong answer. No, we haven’t detained your friends — yet. I’m puzzled about why you haven’t asked to see a lawyer.”

Keisha got a vague sense of what a lawyer was, hearing the word for the first time; someone who defended accused criminals when they were before a tribunal... She thought she realized what he was implying: that she was an accused criminal — but accused of what?

“What are you accusing me of?”

“Nothing, as yet. I simply find it odd that a political science major, on being detained like this, doesn’t ask for a lawyer first thing.”

“I do want a lawyer.”

“We’ll take that into consideration. Do you recognize this person?” He took a small slip of paper from his shirt pocket and pushed it across the table toward her. It was a very detailed, realistic colored drawing of a dark-skinned woman. Was it some criminal the real Keisha Grant was suspected of consorting with? Or one of her relatives, used as a test to see if she was the real Keisha Grant? She suspected the latter, but if she guessed wrong...

“Yes.”

“Who is she?”

“My mother.” It seemed much the most likely possibility, but —

“Oh, dear. Who are you and what have you done with the real Keisha Grant?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I suspect the real Keisha Grant, talking to a strange man at a club about the Wild Girls, would boast of having seen them in concert before. I am reasonably certain that the real Keisha Grant would immediately ask to see a lawyer in this situation. For that matter, almost any American citizen would do so. And I am perfectly certain that the real Keisha Grant would not mistake her high school history teacher for her mother!”

“I won’t answer any more questions.” There was no longer any sense in trying to fool them; they knew who she wasn’t, but she could still hope to keep them from finding out who she was. They’d start torturing her soon, of course — probably they would even rape her, she thought with trepidation — but she thought she could hold out. Not forever, but until the Gray One found her and rescued her...

“You’re not only not the real Keisha Grant, you’re not even a good imitation of her. The real Keisha Grant has consistently gotten good grades in history and the social sciences, but barely passing grades in science and math. Why the sudden interest in the technology museum? Not just visiting the museum during Spring Break, when other girls your age are at the beach, but spending hours on end studying certain exhibits.”

She said nothing.

“And yet... as implausible an imitation as you are in knowledge and behavior, you’re an uncanny imitation physically. You even have her fingerprints. How was that done, I’d like to know?”

Stony silence. She wondered what fingerprints were.

“We’ve had our eye on the person who runs this travel agency for some time. A fair number of his customers — it seems to be the ones who purchase the ‘unique destination package’, whose price varies widely — exhibit strange behavior, not unlike yours, for some time after visiting him. Or it is her? There seem to be several different people, men and women of different races and ages, all doing business under the name Mr. or Ms. G.

“They purchase this ‘unique destination package’, and then — they remain at home. Or at most they visit minor tourist attractions less than a hundred miles away. And when our agents observe them, they seem to be unfamiliar, at first, with basic, everyday things. What have you noticed, Mr. Wilson?”

“They all seem surprised at cars, at first,” the other man said. “And they stare up at the tall buildings, like hicks from Podunk visiting Manhattan — even ones who’ve lived in the city their whole lives, like Ms. Grant here. And I’d swear that this person who claims to be Ms. Grant had never tasted a carbonated soft drink before the night I spoke with her.”

“Care to comment on that, Ms. Grant?” the older man asked. When she said nothing, he went on:

“In fact, it seems that the only thing they get from the travel agency is the company of an employee of the travel agency. Such as this Melanie Peterson who’s been accompanying you to the museum, restaurants and clubs for the last few days, — chauffeuring you in a minivan with license plates registered to the travel agency.”

“Melanie’s a long-time friend of Stephanie,” Keisha said. “That’s how I met her. I like hanging out with her.”

The older man questioning her looked taken aback by that. He said to Mr. Wilson: “Check that out, would you? See if there’s any evidence that Ms. Peterson already knew Ms. Urquhart before last Saturday.” Mr. Wilson nodded and left the room. The older man was silent for a few moments, seemingly gathering his thoughts, then continued:

“If you’re traveling to a place you’ve never been, of course it makes sense that you would hire a local guide to show you around and help you avoid mistakes that foreigners might make because of their wrong assumptions. But why hire a local guide to your own hometown? Or, in the case of some of your friends, to a town you’ve lived in for at least three years — when you’ve got friends who’ve lived there their whole lives and can show you around just as well for free?”

“I don’t know as much about the science and technology as Melanie does,” Keisha offered, though she suspected she had no chance of convincing them... still, saying something innocuous might postpone the moment when they resorted to torture.

“That may be. But it still puzzles me, when, as poor as Keisha Grant’s grades were in science and math, Melanie’s were frequently worse. She outright failed some of those courses in high school; and you — if you’re really Keisha — have at least had exposure to college-level physics and algebra, which she hasn’t.

“So — back to our observations about Mr. G.‘s customers. They behave strangely for some time, and are accompanied almost constantly by a local guide to a city they’ve lived in for some time. Then, after some time — it varies from a few days to a month — his customers seem to get used to things again. They go back to their routines — never having left for any particular destination, unique or otherwise. Their guide, if that’s what these people are, takes some time off work and then starts accompanying some other of Mr. G.’s customers.

“Can you explain to me what’s going on here? Because I have a suspicion, and I don’t like it.”

Keisha remained silent; at the moment, she couldn’t think of anything more plausible than the truth, and she certainly wasn’t going to tell him that.

“I think Mr. G. is quietly doing away with a few of his customers. And he’s replacing them, somehow, with others. Let’s call them pod people, shall we?” He paused, as if expecting that Keisha would react to that term somehow, but she hid her puzzlement. She’d gotten good at hiding her puzzlement, the last few days. “These replacements look and sound exactly like the people they’re replacing, but they don’t know everything they should right away. It takes them a few days to a month to learn enough to convincingly imitate the original person in the company of their friends and coworkers — or perhaps to assimilate some stolen memories?”

Keisha suppressed a smile at the man’s nearly right but ever so wrong guesses.

“And while they’re learning to do that, they take a ‘staycation,’ and are constantly accompanied by one of Mr. G.‘s employees. Nearly all of whom, I might add, are former customers of Mr. G., having at some time bought one of his ’unique destination packages.'

“I think Mr. G. has been infiltrating a number of agents of a foreign power into the U.S. Agents of a very foreign power, shall we say? Someone who has the technology to change their agents into perfect simulacra of our citizens, even down to the fingerprints, but whose agents are surprisingly unfamiliar with cars, skyscrapers, and carbonated beverages. Can you tell me what country on Earth has one of those technologies but not the others? And if not, where might these agents be coming from?”

Keisha still remained silent. So, for a long while, did the older man. The guards by the door stood very still; Keisha and her interrogator fidgeted and shifted in their chairs from time to time, but neither spoke.

Finally, he said: “You’ll talk eventually. Or we’ll learn what we need to know another way.” He rose from the chair and went to the door, saying something in a low tone to the guards by the door as he went out.

The guards waited a few moments after he left, then told Keisha to come with them. She rose and followed the male guard out the door, and was followed by the female guard. They took her down the hallway toward the room she’d woken up in.

Suddenly she turned, dodged past the female guard, and ran the other way. The female guard shouted, and Keisha heard both of them running after her, though she didn’t look back. She reached a corner where the hall dead-ended into another, and hesitated a moment too long before choosing a direction. In that moment the male guard, with his longer stride, caught up with her and took first one of her arms, then the other, in a powerful grip. She struggled and tried to kick him, but couldn’t get good leverage. And she felt clumsy; Tariq’s fighting skills had been rusting for six years since he lost his legs, and Keisha’s body had apparently never had those skills.

“We’re under orders not to hurt you unless you make it necessary,” he said, as he twisted her arms behind her and she cried out in pain. “You just made it necessary.” He spoke to the other guard, and she fastened a pair of manacles around Keisha’s wrists, behind her back.

They led her back to the cell she’d woken up in, removed the manacles, and left her. While she’d been questioned, someone had brought in a tray of food and a large cup of water, sitting it on the floor by the bed. She ate and drank — it was bland, but apparently not drugged — then examined the room carefully. There was no light switch to control the overhead lamp, as in Keisha’s apartment. There was a grille overhead from which fresh air came, but it was far too high for her to jump to, or to reach by climbing on the bed, toilet or sink. And it looked too narrow for her to fit through, even if she could remove the grille from the air duct. There was a small glass window set into the door, giving a view of the empty corridor, but when she tried to break it with the empty food tray, she didn’t even scratch it.

Finally she laid down on the bed. It took a long time, but she eventually slept.


Some time later she was awakened by a female guard — not the same one who had captured her at the club — shaking her. “Get up,” the woman said. “Come on.” She was taller than the average woman, much taller than Keisha. “Pee and poop if you need to, then come with me.”

Humiliated, Keisha lowered her trousers and sat on the chamber-pot, covering her crotch with her hands as the tall woman stared at her impassively. Her business done, she ran water over her hands.

“Enough — come on.” The woman took her by the wrist and pulled her toward the door, which opened as they approached it. Another guard, a man even taller than the woman, was in the corridor. He accompanied them down the hall to another room, but when the woman opened another door and led Keisha into what seemed to be a large restroom, he didn’t follow them.

“Undress,” the woman said, finally letting go of Keisha’s wrist. “There’s a shower there, and soap and shampoo.” Indeed, one corner of the large room had shower nozzles set high in the wall, and just below it, faucets similar to the ones in the bathtub in Keisha’s apartment. Keisha slowly undressed, then went to the shower and turned on the faucets. She couldn’t get really hot water, but she scrubbed herself with both the solid and liquid soaps and rinsed off. The bandage on her arm, after getting wet, came loose and fell off. There was no curtain or screening wall, so she could see, while she bathed, the woman gathering her discarded clothes into a large cloth bag, and taking towels and other clothes from another bag.

“Dry off, then put this on,” the woman said, handing her the towels and holding up an orange one-piece garment. It took Keisha some time to figure out how to put it on, and the woman finally helped her impatiently — she had to step into the legs of it backward, and then seal up the front with a fastener like the ones on her trousers, but longer. There was no underwear.

“Anybody’d think you’d never seen a zipper before,” the guard said, and suddenly Keisha knew what that interlocking fastener was called. “Come on, shoes now. We’ve got somewhere to be.” The shoes were softer than the ones she’d had before, of an orange to match the other garment.

The guard, with her male colleague who’d been waiting outside, led her back to the room with the table and chairs, sat her down, and manacled her to the chair. The guards waited by the door until Mr. Wilson appeared.

“Good morning,” he said. “Did you sleep well?”

“As well as I could with the bright lights.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, patently insincere; “we’ll have to do something about that. If you tell us what we need to know. Have you thought about what we said yesterday?”

She had thought about it. “I want a lawyer,” she said.

“American citizens get lawyers when they’re accused of a crime,” he said. “You’re obvious not an American, whatever you are. We’re not obligated to give you a lawyer. But we can give you other things, if you cooperate with us. Tell us, who is Mr. G.? Where is he from? Where are you from?”

She said nothing, wondering how much longer it would be before they started torturing her, how long she could hold out, how long it would take the Gray One to find her... What if this place were in an area with no magic? Perhaps she would be helpless to save her.

“What did he do with the real Keisha Grant? Is she dead?”

Silence.

“Did Mr. G. take her back to your home planet?” There was that word again — Melanie had promised to show them an exhibit at the museum that explained it, but they’d been too busy studying the workings of the marvelous engines. It meant something like “world,” but not exactly the same...

“Are they doing experiments on her, or using her for slave labor?”

Silence.

“Or is she right there in front of me, a helpless passenger in her own body? If we can’t get you talk, we’ll have to find out what we need to know some other way. Maybe we’ll cut you out of her skull, and leave the real Keisha free again — a bit damaged, probably, but free. We don’t want to do that if we can help it, though.”

Silence. Keisha was already a little hungry when she got up; by now she was was famished.

“How does Mr. G. do it? Give you those human-looking bodies, with just the right fingerprints?”

“I want something to eat,” she said. “And drink.”

“Tell us what we need to know — even just a little bit — and you’ll get the best food we can offer, right away. Keep stonewalling, and you’ll get some basic prisoner chow in a few hours.”

She remained silent.

He asked several more questions, repeats of what the older man had asked the day before, and then sat silent, waiting for her to talk. She thought and thought about what, if any, plausible lies she could tell, something that might at least temporarily satisfy them and postpone the worse torture they must be planning. Finally she said:

“I’m starting to remember...”

“Go on...?”

“We’re not really from another place,” she said. “We just feel like we are, for a while. What’s the strangest place you could possibly go? Your own home, if you don’t recognize it. Ms. G. has a way to make you feel like a stranger at home. Everything seems new and exciting, like you’re a traveler in a strange land. Of course you might make dangerous mistakes, while a lot of your memories are temporarily suppressed, so he assigns us guides to chaperon us until our memories come back.”

“Hmm. How does he do it? Drugs? Hypnosis?”

“A little of both, maybe. I’m not sure, it’s a trade secret. I don’t really remember what he did to me, after he explained in general what he was going to do. I was a little worried, but Stephanie said her friend Melanie had tried it and it was perfectly safe, so I went along.”

“Huh.” Mr. Wilson looked flummoxed — maybe he believed her? He mulled over what she’d said for a while, and said: “I’m not sure if I believe you, but it gives me a testable hypothesis. If you’re lying, you’ll regret it. If you’re telling the truth, then some of your memories should be coming back.”

“Not much,” she said. “Just the most recent ones — from right before Ms. G. suppressed them.”

“Well, they’ll come back in a few days... Or maybe the alien parasite in Keisha Grant’s skull will finally assimilate her memories. But we’re going to test for that, too. Anyway, this is better than nothing. You can eat now.” He left the room, and the guards returned her to her cell. Soon they returned with another tray of food, a little tastier than what she’d had before, but not as good as at the restaurants Melanie had taken them to.

She was fed again some while later. Then the lights in her cell dimmed, but didn’t go out entirely. She slept.



I'll probably post part six in about a week.

When Wasps Make Honey, the sequel to Wine Can't be Pressed into Grapes, is now available from Smashwords in EPUB format and from Amazon in Kindle format. See here for more information.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. An earlier version of this story was serialized on the morpheuscabinet and tg_fiction mailing lists in January 2013.



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