Saturday, December 5, 2009

At Long, Long Last...

So, it's been over a whole month since updates. And one of the reasons for that was because I didn't have enough chapters in my buffer to post some. Why? Because, during National Novel Writer's month, I took a break. I hardly wrote anything. Wow...

But now I have two chapters separating what I'm writing now and what I'm putting up tonight, so all is well.

And, as always, time for some background. The chapter you're about to read didn't exist in the first draft. John fought Shaun, ran away from the building, and the story went rather abruptly to the end. In the second draft, John falls unconscious, has about a page and a half chapter of a very, very, very brief explanation of his fifteen years with the E.H.U.D.s, and then jumps to the end.

This time around, I decided to take some time and put in back-story, to clear up plot points, and also character development, which is rather important because there are some new characters in the end of the book who previously showed up out of thin air, but now have some history with John. Most importantly, we get to see the fabled Allen, find out who he is and why John seems to care about him so much.

So I extended the one little chapter. Originally, it was going to become a longish chapter filled with little vignettes of John's training. But now, it is alive, and has become four rather long chapters, which have gotten me through 1/3 of John's training. Ouch. But I feel this is some of the better stuff in the book (especially the chapter I post next time) so I'll let it stand.

A quick word about the picture at top: an unfinished painting of my dog. I threw it in just because.

As I wrap up, a say, as always, PLEASE COMMENT! Thank you, and good night.


The following chapter contains material not intended for a younger audience! Viewer discretion is advised! If you absolutely have to find out what happens (I'm talking to you, Jacob) have your mom read it and then ask her what happened.

Chapter 22

John opened his eyes, but couldn’t see anything; the world was pitch black around him. That was the first sign that something was wrong. Even at midnight, even with every electronic device turned off, there was still enough light in his dorm room to easily find the bathroom. But this… it actually seemed brighter with his eyes closed…
The second sign was the slight, steady breeze that floated through the space around him. The way the air moved, the temperature, the pressure, everything was different from what he was used to; this space was too large, too open.
The third sign was the stiff, cold material underneath him. His room was carpeted; this felt to be concrete with some kind of coating over it. And by the way his body touched the floor, John could tell he was naked. That was never a good thing to realize immediately after waking up.
The fourth sign was the leg. John could feel it, warm and smooth, pressed against his arm, the foot digging into his hip. He cautiously reached out and touched the leg, moving slowly upwards—oh. The person next to him was female. He thought for a moment that it was Lucy, that maybe she had—no, she was even more traditional than he was, and had staunchly sworn off sex until the wedding night. John carefully pulled his hand back. Where was he?
The fifth sign was an arm, and a body, pressed up against him on the other side. He carefully reached out and ascertained that this person was also female. Emotions warred in his head as he thought about these two companions: embarrassment at being with two total strangers, fear about what Lucy would say when she found out, shame that he had betrayed her like this, elation that he had finally scored, triumph that he was now a real man. He tried to suppress the thought, but he couldn’t help but looking forward to bragging about this to someone—
A foot kicked him in the head. He jerked away, shoving into the woman on his right; she moaned softly. He waited, tense, but the foot didn’t return. At least the foot had been bare…
The final sign, the thing that confirmed that something was indeed wrong, came immediately after the kick. High overhead dim fluorescent lights turned on, the mesh cages around them casting shadows on the heap of nude bodies that littered the floor in every direction.
John gasped, sat up, pulled in on himself as he saw the people around him, the distinct forms blurring into a light brown mass as they lay farther away from him—
Someone touched his hand.
“Wha time ‘sit, honey?” the woman who had been pressed up against him mumbled sleepily.
He jerked away his hand, clutching it between his knees; where was he? He looked around wildly, taking in all that he could see in the limited bubble of clear vision. His eyes returned to the woman who had grabbed his hand, who seemed to be waking up.
She was older than he was, maybe in her early thirties, pale, bald, her hair prickled by stubble—
John saw the person beyond her. A man; bald. Beyond him, a woman, another woman, a woman, a man—all bald.
John turned to the woman on his left—bald. He reached up and touched his own head, ran his fingers along the smooth, velvety fuzz… Lucy would kill him when she found out that he was bald; she had already booked the photographer, even though the wedding wasn’t for another year at least—
Someone scream. He whipped his head around. The woman who had touched him was staring at him in horror. “Get away from me!” she shrieked, pushing herself away.
John raised his hands, tried to tell the woman that it was okay, that nothing was wrong—she pushed herself up to her knees, tried to cover her breasts with one arm, tried to scoot backwards—
She tripped over the man behind her. He gasped, yelled, cursed— she flung herself up, tried to get off of him, tripped over someone else—
There were more yells, people waking up, discovering where they were, what was happening—
“Get away, get away!” someone yelled from behind him. John turned, his vision obscured by the palms of someone hitting him—he reached out and grabbed a hold of a pair of wrists, looked up at whose wrists they were: a young Asian woman, a girl, really, no more than sixteen, naked, bald, just like everyone else—she must have been the one whose leg had been next to him—
A blow landed on the back of his head. “Let go of her, you son of a *****! Let go! Harold! Where’s Harold!”
John let go, crawled away from the women who were beating him, fell to the ground as a heavy man stood, tried to walk, tripped over him. The weight pinned him to the floor; he tired to get up—he could see, off in the blurred distance, a grey mass that seemed to be a wall; if he could get there, he’d be safer; no one could attack him from behind—
Thirty minutes, maybe an hour, maybe more passed. By now everyone was awake. The reactions were all similar; fear, surprise, desperate anger, struggles to survive, to escape. There were tears, shouts, wails of anguish… No communication had been made, no knowledge gained… but now they all sat huddled against the walls, the women on one side, the men on the other.
John couldn’t see any of the women; they were just a pink blob on the horizon, maybe thirty feet away. The men around him, he could see clearly. They were men of all types, all ages, all races, short, tall, thin, fat… there seemed to be no distinguishing features, nothing to signify why they were all gathered here, together in this room…
Why am I in this room, John thought? Why? There was nothing special about him. He was a regular college student. Nothing at all to set him apart from a crowd…
Where was Lucy? Was she safe? If John had been kidnapped, she might have been—no, it wasn’t real, couldn’t be real…
He tried to console himself by imagining this was all a dream, that he had gone back to his dorm and was sleeping soundly… but if it were a dream, there would only be the women in this room… And they wouldn’t be bald… They would probably all look like Lucy.
There was movement and sounds of protest from the mass of the women. John watched as a shape detactched itself from the group, became humanoid; it was the young woman whose foot had been touching him. She shifted uncomfortably, trying to hide her body, but it was no use. She eventually gave up and stood boldly in front of the men. She took a deep breath, stretched to her full height, and said in a strained voice, “Do any of you have any idea of what the **** is going on?”
The response from the men was disjointed, confused. Some started babbling, offering theories, trying to reassure the girl; others turned away, trying to keep their eyes away from the girls, or else trying to hide more physical responses to her presence.
John was part of a group that did nothing, that merely stood where they were, wrapping their arms around and trying to stay covered, or warm, or both.
As the confused babbling died down, one man left the group and walked out towards the girl, an emissary on behalf of the males. Like his counterpart, he was bald, but with much more body hair, and somewhat older. Possibly late twenties or early thirties.
He stopped a few yards away from the girl and extended a hand. “Hello,” he said, “my name is Allen.”
The girl glanced around, saw John, glared at him, and took a few steps forward, accepting Allen’s hand. “Naomi.”
She released Allen’s hand and took a few steps back. “Now, what the **** is going on?”
“I don’t know; I’m sure they’ll tell us soon.”
Naomi’s eyes grew wider. “Who?”
Allen gestured towards the top of the wall, near where it met the ceiling, a region of dense shadow. “Do you see those little metallic glints up there, about three feet down from the ceiling? Kind of diagonal streaks in the shadow?” He waited, and Naomi nodded. “That’s mesh of some sort. Wire mesh, covering a cavity of some kind. Logically, there’s someone back there, watching us.”
If Allen made a response, John couldn’t hear it; he was nearly deafened by the yells that filled the room. “Aliens!” “Terrorists!” “The government!” “The mafia!”
John ignored the yells. Allen. Allen obviously hade some sort of knowledge about the construction of buildings. Well, so did John. He could help out, too. He took a quick glance around the room, taking in every detail of the construction that he could. Then, as the wild theories and paranoia quieted down, he cautiously walked out to where Allen and Naomi stood, feeling extremely self conscious about their eyes on him.
“Hi, I’m John,” he said tentatively, extending his hand out first to Allen and then to Naomi. “I, uh, I’m the guy who woke up next to you—“
“Yeah, I know.” She didn’t accept his hand.
John quickly retracted it. “Um, anyway, I, uh, I have a little experience with architecture, and I can make a few guesses about who may have imprisoned us here…”
Allen nodded. “Go ahead.”
“Well, uh, just like you noticed the mesh, I noticed that, the uh, well, the whole room seems to be made from concrete, with the coating over it, so that suggests extreme functionality. The cracks where the floor meets the walls suggests that the concrete is still fairly fresh, so this place was made for us, apparently, the overhead lights suggest function and durability, and the joists that you can see projecting out of the walls all around the sides suggest a heavy weight overhead. So we’re either near the bottom of a large building, or we’re underground.”
“And what the **** does that mean?”
“You know,” Allen said with a small smile, “you don’t need to use that word in every sentence.”
To John’s surprise, Naomi didn’t respond.
“Go ahead.”
“Well, the materials suggest both a purpose and a budget, and the probable location suggests a fairly big reach so… either a private entity, like a company or eccentric billionaire or, more likely, the government. But of which country, I can’t say.”
“Neither can I, but it might be a good idea to find out everyone’s nationalities. You two American?”
Naomi and John nodded.
“Okay, we need to organize. There’re a lot of us here, in one small room, no apparent way out, and no supplies. We need to figure out who everyone is, maybe see if they know why they’re here. When we have time, we can buddy up and exchange histories. Agreed?”
“Who the **** died and made you the ********* high imperial poobah?”
John started and Naomi gasped quietly. A woman, thin and weathered, with a downy spray of red stubble on her head, had come up behind them.
“Of course,” she continued, “disaster strikes, and who immediately tries to take over? Men! Always you ********* chauvinists trying to take over!”
“I’m sorry, I—“ John tried to say, hoping this woman would leave him alone.
“Oh, you’re one to talk! I know you; Naomi here told me everything! She wakes up and what’s the first thing that happens? She finds you shoving your hand in—“
“That’s quite enough!” Allen bellowed, his voice drowning out the woman and the quiet conversations around the room. “First off, what John might or might not have done to Naomi is a matter for them to work out, not you. Secondly, do you know who first took charge in this situation? The first person to start asking intelligent questions? Naomi. A female. So before you start throwing around accusations, make sure you have the facts right. Third, the reason that I’m the ********* high imperial poobah is because I stood up and tried doing something. I’m in construction, I have experience organizing things! So until a vocal majority of the people in here speaks out, I’m calling the shots, and these two will help me!”
John looked worriedly at Allen. It was all well and good for Allen to be in command; if he wanted it, he could have it. But John didn’t want to be a part of any of this. He just wanted to curl up and go to sleep, wake up somewhere else…
“Now,” Allen said, his voice suddenly calm and even, “if you want to help out here, to have a little bit of authority, why don’t you go back to your side of the room and do an inventory. Find out how many people are there, nationalities, maybe ages. See if everyone’s okay. There’s no way of knowing how long we’ll be here, so we might as well try to make sure everyone’s healthy. John, you can go and do that over on the other side, okay?”
John nodded.
A moment passed, and Allen glanced at him. “Okay?”
“Oh, sorry, right. Okay.”
Allen looked at him for an uncomfortable moment and then said, “What’s wrong?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your eyes…” Allen pointed at his own eyes and squinted.
“Oh, yeah, that. Can’t see too well.”
Allen nodded sympathetically. “Okay. Well, go do your job.”
John sighed and walked back to the group of men. He really didn’t want to take inventory of anyone, but what was the point of arguing? At least Allen’s plan gave him something to do, something to distract him from the fear…
He walked among the men, interviewing them, getting names, ages, nationalities. He forgot most of the names; people would start talking, introducing themselves, babbling on, trying to tell their lives stories, tried to tell him their conspiracy theories, the identity of their kidnappers, predictions of what would happen next. The most annoying among the crowd were those who asked questions, who assumed that John had any idea of what was going on. John tried to rebuff them, to explain that he was just as in the dark as anyone else, but they never listened.
A very few of the people would ask to help, to offer to do something for him. John took special note of those people and sent them off to interview groups of people, with instructions to report back to either Allen or himself when they were done.
After what seemed like hours, John finally conducted his last interview. It was with a dark skinned man about his own age. John recognized him from earlier in the interview process; he was one of the men who had asked to help, and was one of the few who had facial hair, although his was limited to a thin moustache. John walked over to him and introduced himself.
“John Donalson. I believe we might have met earlier?”
“Oh, yeah, you told me to talk to Allen.”
“Did you?”
“Nah, I couldn’t get close enough; he was surrounded by followers.”
John nodded; he was starting too feel drowsy. “I’m sorry, I’m terrible with names—“
“Vincent Larrington, Vince, electrical engineering at PU.”
John managed to wake up a little at the mention of his college. “Wow, me too. Well, architecture, but—you know, you’re the first person I’ve met so far who’s from Philly.”
Vince glanced around at the other men. “Where are the rest from?”
John shrugged. “Everywhere.”
“Hey, what year were you in? Anything above freshmen?” He waited and John nodded. “Do you remember the military recruiters that were out last year?”
It took John a moment to realize what Vince was talking about. The recruiters…
There were always recruiters at college campuses, representatives from the military who tried to get kids to sign up. But the year before they had been out in larger numbers than usual, pressing a big recruitment campaign, providing cash incentives to students who would take aptitude tests. John hadn’t thought about those tests since last year; he remembered them now.
Ten dollars to fill out an interests questionnaire. Twenty to test for competence in key educational areas. Fifty for the other tests…
“Did you take any of the tests?” asked Vince. “Specifically the… weird ones?”
John didn’t need Vince to tell him which tests he meant. If students were interested enough to make it to the third round of testing, the recruits would take them to a small booth and have them do… things. Stare at a red dot on a white card for thirty seconds. Try to turn on a light bulb by thoughts alone. Try to guess which card the questioner was thinking of.
Vince could tell from John’s expressions that he knew what Vince was talking about. “Did you ever get the results back for the weird tests?”
John shook his head.
“Me neither.”
“So you think—“
“You yourself said this place looked like a government building!” Vince hissed. “All the people I’ve talked to so far have been American, all of them have done weird things with a recruiter, or with a doctor, or a graduate student, or something—“
“How many people have you talked to?”
“Thirteen, but—“
John sighed. “Look, a lot of people have theories about what’s going on—“
“Just listen!” Vince’s voice was still quiet, but he spoke with a sense of urgency. “Those thirteen, and me, and I’m willing to bet you, all remember going to bed and sleep last night. That’s the last thing you remember! Who else could just sneak in and take a bunch of people out of bed—hey!” Vince jumped up and twisted halfway around as a hand came down on his shoulder.
“I bet I could,” Allen said, his face split by a grin. “Vince, right?”
Vince swallowed and nodded.
“Is it okay if I cut in and talk to you and John for a minute?”
Vince nodded again.
“Alright, I’ve done my own count and there’re exactly one hundred people in this room. Sixty-one females, thirty nine males. Do you have a nationality count?”
“Uh, yeah. Twenty six Americans.”
“So that brings the total to eighty-three Americans, seven undocumented Mexicans, six Indian college students, and four Canadians.”
“Where were the college students attending?”
“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”
“That’s what I said.”
A new voice spoke up. “What are the age ranges?”
The three men turned and found an older man standing behind them, the rough stubble of a poorly trimmed beard on his face.
John didn’t recognize him. “I’m sorry, I don’t—“
“Todd Frease, with an ‘s,’ not a ‘z.’ MD, OBGYN. Now, what are the age ranges here? By sex?”
Allen rubbed his chin. “Females, seven to thirty-four, the average being about seventeen. Males, thirteen to fifty-three, with you being the oldest. Average age, twenty three.”
Dr. Frease nodded. “Breeding.”
Vince’s eyes, already bulging slightly, noticeably widened. “What?!”
“Healthy population, probably completely unrelated to one another, roughly two-to-one female to male ratio, females on the whole younger than males. Breeding.”
There was a moment of stunned silence, and then both Vince and John tried to make simultaneous objections to Dr. Frease’s hypothesis. “No, there is no way—“ “I have a fiancĂ©—“ “Isn’t that illegal—“
Dr. Frease stared coolly at them until they quieted. “I’m not particularly thrilled at the prospect of being a stud, but what choice do we have? The people we’re dealing with were able to come and abduct us from locations all around the country, and hide us here, wherever here may be. There’s not much we can do in the bottom of a concrete pit.” One corner of his mouth twisted up in a wry smile. “Besides, there are worse things that could happen to us.”
“For you maybe,” Naomi said as she stepped forward into the group, “but being a walking womb is not my idea of fun.”
Dr. Frease shrugged. “It’s just a theory, based on observation. If you have another idea, please share with the group.”
Naomi ignored him and addressed Allen. “We have someone over there, Sarah, she’s a structural engineer, and she says she’s found a patch of wall that doesn’t seem to be solid.”
“Good work,” Allen said, flashing a disarming smile. “Let’s check it out, shall we?”
Allen walked off to the other side of the room, followed closely by Vince and Dr. Frease. John followed more slowly, hanging back with Naomi, who made an effort to ignore him.
“Look,” John said after the silence between them had grown uncomfortable, “I’m really sorry about earlier. I had just woken up, and there was a leg digging into my back, and I couldn’t see—“
“Yeah, okay, it was an accident, I get it; you can shut up now.”
“Okay, thanks. I mean, under normal circumstances I would never—I-I’m supposed to be getting married soon, and—“
“And I don’t care. Shut up.”
John remained quiet for a few seconds. “Um… just out of curiosity, how old are you?”
“Twenty. Why?”
“Really? Twenty? Wow. Um, no reason, I just wanted—“
“Shut, up, I can’t hear them talking.”
They had caught up with Allen’s group. Allen himself lay on the ground along the wall, his head touching that of a woman lying down across from him. She was gesturing along the base of the wall, and occasionally up towards the ceiling. John looked up to where she was pointing, but couldn’t see anything.
Naomi slapped him on the stomach. “Not the ceiling, idiot, along the wall.”
“I can’t see anything.”
“Neither can I. But look, she keeps touching the wall.”
John took a few steps forward, pushing into the crowd that had gathered around the wall inspectors.
“Hey, watch it!” someone yelled. It was the surly woman with the red stubble.
“I-I’m sorry I—“
“You just keep away from me and the girls or I’ll castrate—“
“Oh, shut up, Cyd,” muttered the woman to her right. “No one cares now, alright? Besides, there are more of us than them.”
The redhead—Cyd—looked like she was going to argue the point, but she eventually settled on glaring witheringly at John.
He ignored her and made it to the wall.
“What’s going on?” he whispered to Vince.
“That the one who’s the architect?” called the woman on the floor.
“Uh, yeah—“
“Walk about twenty feet to your right and tell me if you see any indentations on the wall. If not, move your way back here and check every few centimeters.”
John shrugged and went about the task. It was good to have something mindless and distracting to do for a few minutes. He didn’t have to think about where he was… or how Lucy was doing…
No—he couldn’t think about Lucy. That would only hurt, only make him worry. More than likely, she was out in the world, perfectly safe. He could only afford to worry about himself now.
He had reached a point where moving forward would mean treading on Allen’s toes when he found it—a slight indentation, a thin crack, really, perpendicular to the floor. He crouched down and followed the crack until it reached the floor, then stood back up and stretched out an arm to follow the crack up towards the ceiling. It extended much further than the length of his arm.
“I found something,” John told Allen and woman, whom John was pretty sure that Naomi had named as ‘Sarah.’
“Where?” Sarah asked, standing. She was tall, thin, with wiry muscles and a thin lattice-work of tattoos around her neck.
“Right along here.” John gestured along the pathway of the crack.
Sarah turned her head and rested an ear against the wall next to the crack, and then pressed her body against it. She stood in that pose for several long seconds, and then started tapping rhythmically with her fist on either side of the crack, occasionally shifting her head to a new position. Eventually she pulled away and delivered her verdict. “It’s different. Maybe half an inch of concrete, then some kind of metal. The rest of the walls appear to be several inches of concrete. This difference extends from here,” she placed her hand on the crack, and then walked about seven feet away and placed her hand on the wall again, “to here. My best estimate is that this is a door, possibly a loading dock, based on the size. This is how we got in.”
“And how are we going to get out?!” someone called from the back of the gathered crowd.
“Good question!” Allen called back. “I have no idea! But I don’t think we can open this door, so our best bet is the mesh near the ceiling! I would suggest we make a human pyramid, and then send one of the smallest girls up to look in!”
There was a general cry of disagreement, the strongest of which was against endangering one of the few children in the group.
“Listen, listen!” Allen shouted, out-yelling the crowd that was threatening to form into a mob. “We’re all stuck here! We’re all in this together! We have no supplies, no information other than what we can figure out for ourselves! All we have is what we came into this world with,” he gestured down at his body, and then pressed his forefinger to his temple, “and what we carry in our minds! We have to be smart, have to think up our own solutions, with our own resources, to get out of this mess!”
“But why endanger a girl?!” someone shouted. It sounded like Cyd.
“Do you want a full-grown man climbing to the top of the pyramid?”
“We haven’t even decided to do that yet!” someone else interjected.
“I’ll go.” This third voice plunged the room to silence. A small girl, no more than ten years old, pushed through the crowd and stood before Allen. “I’ll go,” she repeated.
Allen crouched down in front of her. “What’s your name?”
“Well Maria, thank you for your bravery.” He stood up and looked out on the crowd, which by this point seemed to contain everyone in the room. “We have a volunteer to look into the window! Now, who will lift her up?!”
There had been no great response to Allen’s last question. In truth, it had been a bit of an anticlimax. Through the entire short speech, John had felt what he could only call patriotic fervor rising up within him, a call by Allen to be all that he could be. And yet when the speech ended—it just ended. There were no wild cheers, no calls of “I will!” or “Long live the revolution!” or any other phrases that seemed appropriate in that situation.
Yet as the people dispersed, and began talking, and one by one ordered themselves along the opposite wall, the biggest ones pushing forward and kneeling down, the rest clambering onto their backs, John could feel a definite change in the atmosphere. Something had shifted; before, they were a disorganized mass of frightened people, with only a few souls brave enough to try to do anything. Now, they were a nation, an army, a single group working together, under Allen, to get through this.
In ten minutes, the pyramid was complete; about fifty of them, mostly men, hunched down on each others backs, trying to lean against the wall to shift away some of the crushing weight. John was in the middle layer, breathing heavily, the combination of the crushing weight of the men and women supported above and the smell of closely-packed bodies making every breath a nightmare.
He was, quite frankly, amazed that he had agreed to be part of this project. Before today, if he had been in a group with fifty naked men, he would have tried to cover himself, to slip away and find some clothes. He had not been one of those students who hides in a bathroom stall to change for gym class, but he was still a bit skittish around nudity; he figured several of the other men must be the same. And the women must feel the same way also. Most of them were still student age, some where married; they weren’t used to walking around like this, showing off their bodies to every man in sight. And yet they too had gotten over their shyness and joined in. Here they were, working together, getting closer than was reasonably comfortable, all for the grater good. That was really the only reason John had done this; that patriotism he had felt earlier. And the naked woman crouched right in front of him didn’t hurt matters either… think of Lucy, think of Lucy, think of Lucy—
He felt a foot dig into his calf muscle and he gasped as the muscle tugged painfully against the underlying bone. But then the foot moved; he felt the woman crouched on his back start in surprise and then gasp as little Maria climbed on top of her.
About a minute latter there was a soft metallic rattle; John imagined Maria lacing her fingers into the mesh to steady herself on top of the precarious pile of humanity.
“I’m here!” she called down.
From somewhere near the bottom of the pile, Allen called back, “What do you see?”
“Not much; it’s pretty dark. But there’s some kind of empty walkway up here.”
“How wide is it?” Sarah asked from somewhere near the top.
“I don’t know. About five feet, maybe. And there’s a sign on the wall. It has a little arrow pointing that way,” John assumed she gestured but had no way of knowing in which direction, “and says ‘E,’ ‘H,’ ‘U,’ ‘D,’ main holding zone.”
“‘E,’ ‘H,’ ‘U,’ ‘D’? What the **** does that mean?” That sounded like the woman who had quieted Cyd earlier.
“It, uh, it spells a name,” John gasped. “Ehud. It’s an Israeli name.”
“We’re in Israel?”
“Maria?” Dr. Frease shouted from the ground; he was the oldest of them, and no one was going to begrudge him sitting this out. “Did you say it like that, each letter, because you couldn’t pronounce the word, or for some other reason?”
“There’s little dots between each letter!”
“An acronym, then.”
“A what?”
“Never mind. What else do you see?”
“Um… there’s a hall going out a little ways that way, and there’s brighter light that way.”
John heard Vince grunting from somewhere below him. “Do you see anything hanging from the ceiling, like shiny black balls, or little boxes?”
“Oh yeah, there are lots of those. What are they?”
“Cameras— **** it, get your knee out of my ***!”
Maria didn’t say anything for a few moments. “I—I, uh, think someone’s coming.”
“Get down!” Allen yelled. “Get down now!”
“But maybe I can talk to him—“
There was the sound of wire mesh rattling, and a deep voice yelling, “Get away from there! What are you doing? Sir! Containment breach!”
And then the pile shifted. Maybe someone’s arm slipped off of someone else’s sweaty back, maybe someone’s strength finally gave out, maybe, maybe… it didn’t matter. The pyramid swayed slightly, people moved and jostled one another so that they wouldn’t fall to the concrete floor twenty feet below them… and Maria fell. She gasped slid backwards, flew free of the bodies that supported her, and plummeted to the ground. John saw her as she came into view, as the pyramid began to collapse around him, as Allen ran, tried to catch her, as it became clear that he would never reach her in time… as she slowed… as she drifted sideways, towards Allen… as she fell heavily into his arms, and he grunted and strained, as if he had caught her falling at full speed… and then John slipped and cashed into the person below him, and the woman above him came down afterwards, and the pyramid dissolved into a quivering, moaning, horribly bruised heap of humanity.
John pulled himself to the top, looked over at Allen, who was now placing Maria gently onto the ground… John knew what he had seen. He tried to convince himself that it was impossible, that he had imagined it, a product of panic and a day of stress… but he had seen it…
Allen noticed John looking at him, and then… and then…
John groaned and dragged himself away from the remains of the pyramid, disoriented and confused. One minute he had been ten feet off of the ground, the next minute he had had what felt like five people sitting on his chest. Dr. Frease stepped over him, grabbed one of his ankles, felt it briefly, and then waded deeper into the chaos.
Allen jogged over and helped John to his feet. “You okay?”
“Uh, yeah, I… Dr. Frease—“
“Yeah I saw.”
“How’s Maria?”
“I’m okay!”
“That’s—“ John coughed violently and bent over, resting his hands on his knees and catching his breath. “That’s good to know…”
Allen opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, but he shut it again when the lights overhead suddenly grew much brighter, and a loud klaxon began blaring through the space.
“What’s going on?” John yelled.
Allen responded, but John couldn’t hear what he was saying. John shrugged and shook his head. Allen tapped him on the shoulder and pointed behind him. John turned—
The door was open. Where once had been a flat grey expanse of coated concrete, there was now a hole about ten feet wide. John expected a squad of deranged soldiers to swarm into the room at any moment, but after nearly a minute, none did.
So, careful not to make any sudden movements, John crept towards the hole. He could see past its edge now, into the hall outside. It certainly was more like a loading dock: long and tall, with no obstructions in it. The doorway itself was slightly smaller than the width of the hall, with a two-inch wide band of concrete-covered metal framing the hole. He could just make out, maybe five feet down the hall, a protruding chunk of wall, mounted on casters, with a thick flange along the outside; the plug for the hole.
And then the soldiers swarmed in. They came from a side passage, moving into the main room, ten, twenty, thirty… Soon, one hundred soldiers, one for every prisoner in the room, where standing around the edges, glaring at the overgrown infants who suddenly found themselves huddling together in the middle of the room.
John found himself with the group, staring fearfully at the armed soldiers, his modesty suddenly returning with a vengeance; he tried desperately to cover himself, saw others do the same.
The klaxon fell silent. Those huddled in the middle of the room shifted, the bigger ones, the warriors, moving towards the outside, the children, the weaker ones, moving in. And at the front, facing the door, John on his right side and Naomi on his left, was Allen.
Another noise started. Not the harsh claxon, not the shouted commands of the soldiers, not the growls of fear and anger from the prisoners. Boots. Boots walking down the hall way, through the door, into the room.
And there was the newcomer, wearing thick military boots and plain uniform, olive drab fatigues with no rank or insignia. He stood facing Allen, but his eyes moved, swept over the room.
“My name,” he said eventually, his voice a hoarse whisper that somehow seemed to fill the room, “is Colonel Robert Mistlethwakey. The facility you are in is the headquarters of the experimental arm of the Enhanced Human Ultimate Defense initiative. The facility has no name, but no doubt some of you may come up with some charming nickname to apply to it. One thing you will all agree on, however, is that this is home. Except for very rare circumstances, you will be staying here for the next twenty years. Any questions?”
Allen raised one arm.
“Yes, Mr.…” Mistlethwakey’s eyes rolled upwards, and his eyelids flickered rapidly for a moment. “Mr. Fendleton, yes?”
Allen lowered the arm. “What do you want from us?”
Mistlethwakey’s face remained expressionless. “You will be taking part in an experiment—no, that’s not the best word. You will be taking part of a carefully tested and perfected process that will change you all into the latest in military technology: Enhanced Human Ultimate Defenders. You will put America back on top of the world, militarily speaking.”
Allen raised his arm again, but didn’t wait for permission to speak. “Why don’t we have any clothes?”
Mistlethwakey spread his hands in an uncaring gesture. “You had to be processed; clothes got in the way. Also, they were items from the outside, part of your old life. You’d be surprised by how much of one’s identity is wrapped up in clothes, if you’ll pardon the pun. Of course, new clothes will be provided for you in your barracks.” He paused. “Any other questions?”
A heavily muscled, dark-skin man on the outer edges of the prisoners stepped forward, straitened to attention, and saluted. “Private first class Mervin Lemlin, sir!” he barked out, dropping the salute. “Sir, what are you doing? Kidnapping civilians and holding them against their will is a violation of who we are, sir! We protect them, not enslave them, for scientific purposes or otherwise!” He glared at Mistlethwakey. “Sir,” he added as an afterthought.
“Ah, yes, Mr. Lemlin. I believe that in principle, you are right. We must protect these people. But we don’t have to, because they’re dead. Well, some of them are, anyway. You are, Mr. Lemlin. Your unit was set upon by RPGs lat night, no survivors. Very tragic. And you, Mr. Fendleton, you’re dead as well. Electrical accident, stuck a screwdriver where it didn’t belong. Ms. Johnston, standing next to you, she eloped to Paris. A happy ending. And Mr. Donalson, on your other side, he’s in a deep coma following a very nasty car accident. And that also gives us a certain degree of protection; no one is going to come looking for any of you. You all have a story, a reason why you won’t be seen for quite some time.”
John stepped forward and raised an arm. He wanted to know what would happen to his family, to Lucy.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Donalson, question and answer time is over. If you want further information, you may read the packets left for you in your barracks. Right now, however, you will be assigned to you personal guard. As I’m sure those of you with a basic understanding of math have already ascertained, there will be one guard for each of you, male to male, female to female. They will be your constant companion for at least the next five years, and possibly more. You will eat together, sleep together, do everything together. You will at no time be out of their watchful gaze or line of fire.” He paused and pulled a neatly folded sheet of paper form a breast pocket. “After each of you has been assigned your guard, you will be escorted to your barracks. We will meet again in the morning to begin your training. Now: Ms. Aims, Sergeant Obama. Ms. Ayers, Sergeant Quincy…”
The list continued. John couldn’t think of anything to say, anything to do. His world was one, stripped away, and there was no way to get it back. He briefly contemplated charging the guards, acquiring a weapon, fighting—Allen caught his eye. Slowly, nearly imperceptibly, Allen shook his head, almost as if he could read John’s mind, knew what he was planning.
A sudden thought struck John. An idea for an experiment… He focused his attention on Mistlethwakey, thought of walking up to him, hitting him, strangling him. The guards would intervene, would strike back at him. John resolved to struggle, to try to get killed—he glanced at Allen. Allen silently mouthed the word ‘no.’
That… that was a bit disturbing. All of this, this conspiracy, this violation of his basic human rights, that frightened John, made him question the future, his own continuous existence. But Allen… Allen seemed to be able to do something that no one could do, something imposs—a brilliant memory flashed through John’s mind, exploding upwards like air out of water: Maria, falling through the air, her body tumbling, Allen reaching out, her body moving impossibly sideways—
John shook his head and glanced around the room. Several guards stood nearby, their weapons raised. And directly in front of him stood Mistlethwakey, his expression pleasant, but a bulging vein on his temple betraying his anger.
“What?” John asked.
“For the third time, you’re assigned to Sergeant Udarian. Now follow him to your barracks! Do you understand?”
John thought of responding, of giving some witty retort, maybe of making a physical statement of defiance—No.
It was an audible voice, a definite sound. But… there was no echo, no distortion from the room around them. It was pure sound, directly in his ears, in his head. John turned and stared at Allen, the only possible source of the sound. Allen was already staring at him.
No, the voice in John’s head said again.
John ripped his attention away from Allen and focused on Mistlethwakey. “If I have to tell you one more time, you will be sedated and—“
“Alright, I’m going. Which one is Uda-whatsit?”
“Just look for you.”
“What?” John looked around and—It was him, wearing an olive uniform, his hair, still present, covered by a cap. John blinked in amazement. The man looked almost exactly like himself.
The man strode forward and clapped a hand firmly on John’s arm. “This way.”
John stumbled as his double pushed him forward, away from the dwindling crowd of prisoners. Mistlethwakey began reciting form the list and John managed to hear, “Mr. Fendleton… Corporal Lister,” before he was out of the room and into the hall.
For the first fifty feet or so, the hall was exactly like the large room they had just left: concrete walls, floor, ceiling, all covered in some sort of thin plastic coating, with dim, caged lights far overhead. But soon they reached the end of the hall and turned into what appeared to be a hospital. Linoleum floors, blank whit walls with a thick band of plastic at about waist level. The ceiling lowered, became pockmarked tile, interrupted occasionally by banks of simple fluorescent lights. On either side of the hall were doors, thick and grey with a small window set near the top.
Udarian continued to push John down the seemingly endless hall, passing door after door, continuing in a straight line until they finally jerked to a stop and Udarian pushed John towards a door to their left. “In here,” he said gruffly.
The room beyond the door was as blankly utilitarian as the hall outside. There were two beds on wither side of the door, with thin floor-to-ceiling cabinets at their feet. Directly across from the door was another door, opened to reveal a small lavatory.
“Welcome to your new home,” Udarian said, shoving John through the door and locking it behind him as he followed John in. “This is ours for the next five years, so get used to the fact that I snore.” Udarian took off his cap and tossed it onto the bed to his right. Lights-off is in fifteen minutes. I’ll get you up in the morning.” He crossed the cramped space, pulled a towel from the cabinet at the foot of his bed, and went into the lavatory.
Once the door was closed and John was sure that Udarian wouldn’t be coming out for some time, he went to his own cabinet and looked inside. Five white t-shirts hung from a rack, five pairs of white shorts sat on a shelf, ten pairs of white socks were stuffed in a drawer, and two pears of white sneakers sat on the bottom of the cabinet. With only a moment of hesitation, John pulled out one of everything, except for the sneakers, and got dressed.
It was good to be wearing clothes again, but John still felt strange, still felt as if he was exposed, spied upon. He spent a moment looking around the room, trying to find hidden cameras or microphones, but there appeared to be nothing. Then he realized: Udarian was the spy camera. Everything he did, Udarian would be watching.
So there would be no hope of escape, no way of coming up with a plan, of carrying it out. But he had to escape, had to get out…
Tears welled up in his eyes, and John fell to his bed, holding in a sob that was trying to force its way out of him. He was stuck, with no idea where he was or how he had gotten here… no way out… no way back to Lucy…
There’s nothing you can do but accept it…
There was the voice again, telling him things. John’s tears dried as he listened to the voice.
Alone, you’re powerless… you can’t hope to escape… but with the others… there’s hope there. Just give it time. Don’t resist; just play along with Mistlethwakey… the time will come to strike back, to escape.
The voice continued for several more seconds, reassuring John, convincing him to bide his time… and John listened. Everything the voice said was true. There was no getting back to Lucy. She might as well not even exist, now. She was in one world, John was in another, and nothing in the near future would change that. John released the sob that was still inside him and with it, he released Lucy. He realized he might never see her again, might never hold her as his wife… he let her go, let his whole life go. He was here, now, and all he could do was try to survive.
And he would survive… but he would never give up hope of escape, of revenge… And not just for himself. For all of them…
The lavatory door clicked open, and Udarian stepped out, clad only in a pair of boxer shorts. He threw his towel on the floor and lay out on his bed.
“Only five minutes until lights out,” he said in a conversational tone. “You might want to read the papers in your cabinet.”
“Papers?” John, physically and emotionally spent, could barely keep his eyes open.
“Top shelf. Mistlethwakey wants everyone to read it before you start work tomorrow.
John was about to resist, but then realized that it would be good to have as much knowledge about this place, about this whole program, as possible.
He retrieved the packet of papers from his cabinet and returned to the bed. He flipped through the pages briefly, and the opened to the first page, which gave a brief overview of the E.H.U.D. initiative, including selections from the legislature that introduced it. John vaguely remembered hearing something about the initiative on C-SPAN, or NPR, somewhere any way…
He flipped the page and found description of the goals of the initiative: enhanced weaponry, armor, training… altering of the human genome… creation of paranormal abilities within the standard human baseline…
John reread the paragraph several times, not understanding what was meant by those words. Creation of paranormal abilities… When Mistlethwakey spoke of changing them, making them into the latest examples of military technology…
John quickly flipped to the next page; a brief history of the program. In the 1960’s the military had become intrigued by the prospect of exploiting so-called paranormal abilities such as extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and telepathy for defensive purposes; creating their own armies of psychic warriors. But after several years of study, nothing concrete materialized. The powers seemed to exist, seemed to be real enough. But none of the people they found, none of the psychics, were strong enough for what the military had in mind. So the program was aborted, the conscripts sent home… but not before extensive biological samples had been collected.
Years passed, and eventually the human genome was unraveled, explored, catalogued. And the samples were revisited, explored, compared to non-psychic genomes. The differences were found, isolated, modified… and introduced to rats via bioengineered viruses.
John grimaced at the pictures of mangled scientists, their chests gaping open, there eyes malted away, rats crawling all over them. So this was the kind of stuff they expected their prisoners to do…
After the rats were destroyed and different causes of death were concocted for the scientists, the psychic genome was put under wraps for several more years. But something with that much potential power could not remain hidden for long. Some twenty-five years ago, a team of military scientists, under the command of Major Robert Mistlethwakey, convinced five men to volunteer for an illegal human trial…
The men all died two weeks later, lost in an aircraft over the pacific. But Major Mistlethwakey had the results he wanted. Armed with blood work, page after page of lab procedures, and recordings of the volunteers’ abilities following their exposure to the viruses, Mistlethwakey was able to convince his friends in congress, among them Senator Isaac Latterndale, to draft the Enhanced Human Ultimate Defense Initiative bill. The bill would allow the American public its own little arms race, pushing companies and entrepreneurs into a creative frenzy to develop the latest in combat technology… and allow Colonel Mistlethwakey to continue his work, to make a corps of soldiers unlike any the world had seen before.
And so here John was, a prisoner, an E.H.U.D., fated to spend the next twenty years trapped in this hole, to be trained, altered, made into the tool that Mistlethwakey intended…
The rats. John thought back to the pictures of the rats and their desperate swarm to freedom, destroying all that was in their way… and he felt hope.
He flipped to the last page and tried desperately not to show any hint of surprise. It was a list, names of everyone who knew about this portion of the E.H.U.D. initiative: one hundred subjects, one hundred guards, two hundred medical and miscellaneous personnel, twenty seven in the pentagon and the capitol. Everyone who knew about this secret project, everyone who had something to lose if this was released.
A plan formed in his mind then. Spend the next few weeks doing whatever it was that Mistlethwakey wanted him to do. John wouldn’t cause any problems, he would do everything willingly. But he would watch. He would see everything about this facility, take in every detail, build a mental blueprint. And soon enough, he would find his way out, would escape, would take this paper to the people who needed to see it. He might even be able to take some of the others with him when he escaped. But even if he couldn’t, it didn’t matter; they would be released as soon as this place was shut down. And John would be able to see Lucy again…
The lights in the room suddenly shut off.
“Lights out,” Udarian said. John could hear him roll over and begin to snore.
He held the papers for a few more moments, unsure of what to do. His first instinct was to horde the papers, hide them somewhere were he could always get to them. But that would look to suspicious, would be grounds for confiscating them. No, the best course of action would be to just drop them on the floor and put them back in the cabinet tomorrow, to pretend that they meant nothing to him. When the time was right, he would have them.
So John let the papers fall. He stretched out along the bed and, with hope filling him, fell quickly asleep…

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