The Vortex: A Fable of Espionage and Betrayal

A short story by Mark Fenton.

By Mark Fenton
Published January 08, 2009

I only saw them together once. At the Vortex. Twenty-seventh floor. And I didn't even see them. Isn't that funny? I think it's funny. You don't have to agree if you don't want to. But I think it's funny.

Granted: with the last defection we're all a bit paranoid here at the Vortex.

I put my suspicions down to that.

Until the Vortex Christmas party.

Seemed a bit of a coincidence that a second after I walked into the Coderoom everything went black.

I had the briefest glimpse of our “team.” Still in white labcoats. Doing all those mindless dances that should have been buried under the century that gave birth to them. The gramophone going rvvvvrsshhhh

like a dying goose.

The next day I went to see Abe “Pixels” Zapruder. Abe works down the hall in Image Reconstruction. Oldest guy on our team. Got his experience way back before the—well, I better not get going on that. Let's just say he's got the credentials

and I for one am glad as hell he chose our side.

I got Abe to give me an infrared reading from the camera I tripped when I walked in.

(You should have thought of that, Cliff, before you showed up with Katje at a staff party in the Coderoom. A man with your brains? You should have thought of that.)

And there they were. Cliff Santiago and Katje Vukovic.

Clear as the nose on my face. It all started to make sense. Why I was the last to hear about the party.

She was all I had to cling to amidst the insanity. We'd been married by Bernd the Interrogator (an ordained Lutheran minister once; as if that means anything now) last Valentine's Day. A simple ceremony on the roof of the Vortex,

by the barbed wire.

As for Cliff? He was the best math brain in the Coderoom. Beyond that it was anyone's guess what went on behind those cold eyes.

Once, in the Coderoom, he'd pointed to a folded elastic on the table.

--This loop. It's unique. It defies alegebraic notation.

--What ... like a Möbius strip?

--Think of a Möbius strip as a power set and you're not so far off. I could spend my life exploring its intricacy and never find my way out.

--You have fun with that Cliff...

I can't allow myself to get personal about Cliff and Katje. Our work is too important. So it's just as well the orders came in the next day. We needed everyone for the jump. Especially Katje. She intuits things.

Once, we cracked the central treasury vault in Jelgava

because Katje posited “METASTASIZE” as a password. No one knows how she does it.

She's an asset in the minefields. That's for damn sure.

Turns out they've got a new code machine. The Sphinx. They're pretty smug about it in the Zone. It's supposed to be unbreakable.

When I told that to Cliff he didn't so much chuckle as sneer. And his eyes shifted as at a mathematical challenge.

But before we can break the code we need to get hold of a Sphinx.

That's where the mission comes in.

I watched the launch from my surveillance module.

I couldn't believe they'd get lift, packed as they were like sardines.

But Casare says you could lift the Taj Mahal with an S-93 if you've got the chops.


They'd already positioned me in the Zone,

my long wool coat full of manufactured ID. They chose me because I'm fluent. Yeah. Lucky me.

I walked past a city's worth of disused aircraft. I'm pretty much certain that what they call their “government” couldn't afford to revive this stuff; even IF the Zone had a crew with the skill to get these things airworthy.

A suitcase full of hardware put me into an empty hanger at an abandoned airbase.

And into the office I could have walked to blind, from all the time I'd spent poring over the floorplan.

A few minutes earlier I'd watched the jump on my module.

Something was off. It was taking too long.

I swore I saw a flash of light.

I kept watching.

I couldn't tell if those were our guys or just something on the glass.

And only two of them?!

I zoomed in.

And I sure as hell didn't need Abe to tell me those two lone parachuters were Cliff and Katje.

I took a photo and printed it. I cut them out of the photo in discrete squares. I pasted the squares onto a fresh piece of blank paper and labeled them. I called it “Diagram 1.0.” (If what you're looking for is attention to detail, hire a man in the throes of obsessive jealousy.)




I don't have much memory of the next few hours. Something hit me. I could hear things but I couldn't move. When I opened my eyes it was all over.

The hangar has some surveillance gear you'd swear was reject equipment from what I once heard someone call the Cold War.

I did some of my own Image Recon. Not my area of expertise. But I had time.

Nothing but time.

Here's the best I could get on one of the two figures, as they fled the hangar and disappeared under the thump of rotor blades that weren't even supposed to be there.

A few days later I found this in my shirt pocket.

Lipstick traces and note.

As I write it's Feb 14. Go ahead. Laugh. I'm laughing. Up here in the wreckage of what was once the observation floor I'm laughing like there's no tomorrow.

There IS no tomorrow. The Zone is on to me. They're close.

There's always plenty of fuel residue in an aircraft graveyard. I've rigged this whole place to go up like the WTC on…well…you remember the day. The day everything fell apart.

By the way Cliff, there's more gear stored on the lower floors of the Vortex than your genius for abstraction would deign to concern itself with. That's a pity. You wouldn't believe the devices I've found there.

I GPSed the two of you before you got on the chopper. Both of you show up on the Arctic Ocean about 275 km NNE of Murmansk. A few feet apart. Sometimes not even that.

The folks at Vortex say they looked hard but never found you.

They insist you're dead. That I'm just bitter. That you two would NEVER go over to the Zone.

My time is not long. I'm going to transmit this now. Happy Valentines Day Cliff.

Oh, and Katje? I didn't mean it to be like this either.

Mark Fenton lives in Hamilton and works in transportation logistics. He is the author Pim, a children's book for all ages. The eponymous Pim tweets daily @PIMSLIM_. A physical copy of Pim will be published soon and in the meantime Pim is available as a Kindle e-book which you can buy. Mark maintains a website at


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