Somewhere in the Great Plains...
This is what they call flyover country. Mile after mile of rolling hills, tilled fields, unceasing wind, and fading towns that didn't likely top more than a couple thousand (or even a couple hundred) in their 20th-century heyday.
Now, in the Year of Our Lord 2029, it's like a magnet for people looking to go off the grid. The local governments can't afford CPF protection in most cases, and the states and feds are stretched too thin to look after any population center with much less than a couple hundred thousand folks to rub together. And let's face it; places like the Dakotas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma are just names on a map to pretty much everyone who doesn't already live there. So if you're looking to avoid the residual, unwelcome government attention that was the hallmark of the dustup with the Chinese and Nokos, you've found your haven.
Well, it's a haven if you can handle extreme temperatures throughout the year, farm labor, sparse wireless 'Net access in some parts, and know your way around firearms well enough to join a local militia. In other words, it's the last place on Earth that I expected to find Ryan Bell. And yet, this is where his trail ends.
Who is Ryan Bell? He's my best friend. Why did I follow him to the middle of nowhere? I'll tell you, but I'll have to keep it brief. You see, a rather innocent-looking girl of about seven has bulls-eyed my neck with a dart fired from a tranquilizer gun. I fear that I may soon lose consciousness.
* * *
"Cojeme! Half his body is burned off, man!
"I know. But I'm getting a pulse. Not much of one, but still. . . call it in, Ortiz."
"Bet you 20 he don't last until the chopper gets here."
"Come on, man. That's just wrong."
"1-9-7 Kilo, 1-9-7 Kilo, requesting emergency medevac to Grid 4-2 Sierra. Repeat, 1-9-7 Kilo requesting emergency medevac to --"
An explosion, then, and I saw the remains of the M-ATV I'd just crawled out of fly over us, turning in the air and slamming to the earth behind us.
* * *
I was at work when Ryan called. Some overpriveleged, precious young darling had spray-painted "Fuck the Chinks" on the wall of the third-floor bathroom -- while I didn't totally disagree with the sentiment, it was still my job to apply liberal amounts of turpentine to remove the graffiti before Grace Baptist School opened to the rich kids of Dallas in an hour.
The earpiece chirped in my right ear to let me know I had a call. I used to wear it in my left, but that side. . . well, it doesn't work so well anymore. There's still an ear there, technically, but not enough of one to even hold the earpiece.
"Andy Foster, loving life," I grumbled by way of greeting.
"Andy. Hey, it's Ryan."
"Ryan! What the fuck, man? You were supposed to be back, shit, months ago. I heard you called to resign. Lawrence was pissed, brother."
Jim Lawrence was the school administrator -- which was basically rich-person speak for the vice principal. Though I was just the custodial engineer (rich-person speak for janitor, or "he who cleans up shit and vomit") and Ryan was the financial assurance officer (rich-people for "accountant"), Lawrence was in charge of both of us. And he was an asshole, so that's fun.
"Yeah. Um, I was planning to come back to Dallas. Uh, I called to ask you a favor."
"My car -- piece of shit broke down in the middle of fucking nowhere. I tried calling a tow truck or something, but no one comes out this far."
"Where are you?"
"Nebraska. Um, Ormond is the name of the. . . well, I wouldn't really call it a town. Think you can come get me?"
I looked at the slowly melting racial epithet in front of me, soaked in turpentine but not yet scrubbed away. I didn't have any vacation time built up, but. . . yeah, fuck this, I thought.
"Sure. I'm headed home now, and I'll get on my way out there. It'll take a couple of days to get out that far -- where should I pick you up?"
"There's only one motel in town. That's where I am."
"All right, brother. Hang tight."
I walked out of Grace Baptist Academy without saying a word to anyone. Fuck Lawrence. Let him figure it out himself. Not like I had a bunch to leave behind at that job, anyway -- everyone avoided me like the plague, either because I'm so big or because I'm so pretty.
Yeah, about me -- I was in the war. I know, shocking, right? I'm a guy in his 30s, so it was a pretty good guess I served somewhere. What no one wants to talk about, though, is that I was Army Kilo. Convict unit. I don't really want to talk about how I got there, so don't ask.
When we broke into Mongolia -- this was, what, fall of '27 -- my unit came under heavy fire from Chinese units. The M-ATV I was in as a passenger got hit by a rocket from a CDM. Driver got flash-fried when the vehicle exploded, but I was halfway out the side door when it went up. I lived, but not without scars.
A lot of 'em, actually. Doctors told me 48% of my body was covered in third-degree burns. I lost my left eye, three fingers on my left hand, and a good chunk of my left ear.
Like I said, I'm pretty.
Anyway, I walked out of Grace Baptist and right to my car. I didn't really make enough money as a janitor to afford a vehicle, but my wife had one -- she left it to me in her will. It was a 2026 Chevy Ronin, a nice sport-utility with hybrid solar. I drove to my apartment (crappy doesn't even come close to describing it), showered, packed some clothes and a Glock 50 (yeah, don't tell anyone I have that, what with being a reformed felon and all), and loaded the coordinates for Ormond, NE into the Ronin's GPS.
It wasn't an easy drive, or a short one. The Federal Government would have you believe that it's business as usual all over the country, but they haven't put any money into the Interstate system for more than a decade now. Interstates that used to be fine are wrecked -- some by insurgent action during the war, some by car wrecks that were never cleaned up, and some just by overuse and disrepair. I'd often have to find alternate routes, state highways, dirt roads -- a voyage that would have taken a day and a half before the war took me four days and change.
Gave me plenty of time to think, though. I flashed back to the war, but I do that a lot, and chances are you know someone who had it just as bad as I did. I won't bore you. I remembered how I met Ryan, though, a year ago when my record was cleared and they let me out of the Army to go seek employment. Bachelor's degree aside, the only place that would hire an ex-Kilo was Grace Baptist -- where the elite send their snotbag jerk kids to get a pre-college education.
Ryan was a good guy. I mean, initially, he was as reluctant to talk to me as anyone else -- big and pretty worked in my favor again. But one night, after I'd been working there maybe a month, he was staying late doing the end-of-year financials, and I was staying late fighting a losing battle against a clogged toilet.
He left a few minutes before me, but when I got out to the parking lot, he wasn't alone. A couple of punks -- Chinese, looked like -- had him with his back up against his car. One of them had a sawed-off shotgun, and the other one had a big, sick knife to his throat.
"I already gave you my money! Please, just take it and go!"
"Your car, too, you rich motherfucker," the kid with the shotgun said.
"OK. I'm going for my keys -- just stay calm," Ryan stammered.
"Motherfucker, I should just cut your fucking throat right now. I bet you killed a lot of us Chinks in the war, didn't you, motherfucker?"
"Nah. I did, though," I said, cracking my knuckles as I walked up to the scene. "Killed, what, 40 or 50 of you little bastards. Two more ain't gonna make me lose sleep."
The kid with the knife kneed Ryan in the groin -- hard -- then lunged at me. He was young and fast, but he didn't know his way around a blade. I dodged to the side and caught him by the wrist, twisting the knife out of his hand and spinning him around. A half-second later, I had him in a rear-naked choke with the knife to his right eye.
"Drop the shotgun, shitbird, or I'll shove this thing right into your buddy's brain. Wouldn't be the first time I've done it. Hurts like a motherfucker, to," I told the other one, smirking.
"You won't do it," the kid said, raising his shotgun.
"Even if you really think I won't, you're gonna hit your boy and do it for me with that street-sweeper."
The kid considered for a second, then turned and ran. When I couldn't hear his footsteps anymore, I let the other kid go and kicked him solidly in the back.
"Run on home, Skippy."
"My blade, man."
"Mine now. Unless you wanna come take it."
The kid took off, and I helped Ryan to his feet. We've been friends ever since -- mainly because he's one of the only people that talks to me, and I'm one of the only people that talks to him. Lifelong friendships have been formed for less.
I made it to Ormond on a sunny, brutally hot day, and I saw what Ryan meant by it not really being much of a town. There was a diner attached to a gas station, a few streets of houses, a motel, and the city hall. Not much else that I could see. I saw Ryan's car outside the gas station, but the place had a "back in 10 minutes" sign up in the window. I checked the motel -- same sign. Same handwriting, too.
There was a cop car outside the city hall -- a brand-spanking new Ford Interceptor. Really nice vehicle -- the kind actual cities with money had, like L.A. or Dallas. It was gleaming white, spotless, not even a smudge on the windshield. It was parked next to a side door that said "Ormond Sheriff's Department." There was no hand-lettered sign on that door, so I walked in.
"Hey, friend. Welcome to Ormond!" a young guy in a clean, pressed Sheriff's uniform said as soon as I walked in. "How can I help you today?"
"Um, hey," I mumbled. I wasn't used to someone actually talking to me, and especially not used to someone being seemingly happy to do so. "I'm looking for a friend of mine. Called me from here a couple of days ago. Name's Ryan Bell."
"Hmm. We haven't had anyone through here in weeks, friend. Haven't seen him."
"Oh. Uh, you sure? I have a picture if --"
"Nope! Haven't seen him. Anything else I can do for you, you just let me know, OK?"
Ah, the brush-off. That, I was used to. Not a brush-off this cheerful, but still -- I knew what he was getting at.
I hadn't eaten in almost a day, so I walked over to the diner. Though it was attached to the gas station, it had a separate door, and there was no sign on its door. I could see people moving around inside, so I walked in. The place was actually really nice -- spotless and bright. A woman and her two kids, one a little girl and the other a baby, were in one of the booths. A few tables away, a few old-timers were playing cards. There was a waitress behind the counter, talking to a guy in clean, khaki coveralls. I took a seat at the counter, and the waitress walked right over, smiling widely.
"Hi, stranger! What can I get you?"
"Um, cup of coffee to start."
"Sure! Regular, decaf, Sumatran, Ethiopian, or maybe a latte?"
"Um, just regular. Strongest blend you've got."
"Right away!" she smiled, heading over to a gleaming, modern multi-blend machine. She was back with my coffee a moment later, and I showed her Ryan's picture.
"I'm looking for this guy. His name's Ryan Bell. You know him?"
"Sorry. I haven't seen anyone who looks like that."
"Oh, come on! His car's right outside the gas station!"
"That's my station. Found that car about 45 miles down the road and towed it here. No registration in it, no one waiting by it. Figured someone would come looking for it, but no one did," the guy in the coveralls said, turning to me and smiling.
Shit. I figured I'd just order -- which I did -- and figure out my next move while I was eating. It didn't make sense -- Ryan had called saying his car had broken down here. His car was here. But no one would admit to seeing him, and I guess finding his car down the road was believable enough. . . still, something didn't seem right.
I finished my meal -- good, by the way -- and headed out to the parking lot. As I went for the door, I heard the young mom ask her daughter to get the diaper bag from the car -- odd. I'd only seen Ryan's. The little girl shot past me and ran out the door, that mission-oriented run little kids get when they're hyped up on sugar. I walked out to the parking lot about ten seconds later. . .
. . . and that's when the cute little hyper girl shot me in the neck.
As I hit the ground, my vision started to get blurry, but I saw the old-timers from the diner coming out with zip-ties in their hands. The girl's mother was on her phone, her infant cradled in her left hand.
"Mr. McPherson," I heard her say as I faded out. "We've got a target. Acquired and neutralized, sir."
I saw the little girl skip by me on the pavement, humming happily to herself, the dart gun dropped on the sidewalk behind her. Then everything faded away.
* * *
War flashbacks are a bitch. You're convinced you're back in some shithole in Mongolia, half your skin burned away, desperately trying to flag down an M-ATV full of Navy SEALs with your good arm after your squad leader takes a round to the brain and the rescue chopper sent to get you gets blown out of the air by an RPG.
It's always a relief to wake up and not be there, even if you wake up in a bright, long, white room. Which is where I woke up, or I wouldn't be mentioning it.
As my good eye blinked away the haze -- drugs, most likely -- I saw that I wasn't alone. There were two other men in the room with me, one sitting in a chair, the other standing against the wall behind him. The seated man was older, maybe 60, but solidly built, dressed in a gray business suit and a black shirt. He had close-cropped silver hair and a well-trimmed beard.
The man standing behind him was tall, muscular, and dressed in black fatigue pants and a black hooded shirt. The hood was up, so I couldn't see his face clearly.
"Welcome back, Mr. Foster. Have a nice nap?" the man in the chair asked, winking his left eye at me.
"Fuck you," I groaned, struggling into a sitting position. My hands were bound behind my back with zip-ties. My ankles were zip-tied together, too, so it wasn't easy to sit up -- but I managed.
"Let's watch our manners here," the old man said, smirking as he tilted his head to the other man in the room. "I think we can remove his restraints."
The man in black moved fast for a guy his size -- he covered the room in seconds, quickly and easily snapping the plastic zip-ties with two fingers. Before I could blink, he was back at his boss' side.
"Fine. I'll play. Where am I?" I sighed.
"Oh, you're in the same place you were. Just, lower," the old man said. "Welcome to Ormond, Nebraska, Mr. Foster. I think you've noticed by now that there's more to our little community than first appearances would suggest. I'm Mr. McPherson, and this is my town."
"Look, can we just skip all the speechifying? You wanted me dead, you would've given the creepy seven-year-old a MAC-10 instead of a tranquilizer gun. You want something from me, so why not just spit it out?"
"Quite right. Direct and to the point, soldier. Good man."
McPherson checked a small screen on his sleeve.
"Convict Andrew Foster, Army Kilo. Convicted in 2022 of criminally negligent homicide. Your wife and young daughter, wasn't it?"
I gritted my teeth together as I mentally measured the distance between me and McPherson. With as fast as his henchman had moved before, I had a less than zero chance of bolting across the room and ripping the fucker's throat out before his dog tore me in half. Still, I considered it.
"Sentenced to seven years, let out in six and a half because you were combat ineffective because of," McPherson made a gesture that loosely indicated the left half of his face, "but before that, a veteran of over 150 operational situations. You'd make an excellent candidate."
"Candidate for what?" I growled, still weighing the chances I could take him out before I got killed myself.
"Experimentation," McPherson told me, his face breaking into a wide grin.
I don't care how tough you are -- when someone says they want to experiment on you, your first instinct is to run like hell. The door was on the left, between me and McPherson. I had a better chance of reaching that than I did the old man, so I bolted. I hadn't taken three steps before his goon was in front of me, driving one stone fist into the right side of my jaw.
I hit the floor hard, sliding back a couple of feet and ending up with my spine jammed against the wall.
"I'd suggest not doing that again," McPherson sighed. "You'll want to hear me out, Mr. Foster. I have so much to show you. Now, if you can pick yourself up, we'll take a walk."
The big guy in black was headed towards me again, but I held up a hand and dragged myself to my feet. He stopped dead, not moving as I stood -- I couldn't even be sure he was breathing. As his boss stood, the big guy fell in beside him. McPherson held up two fingers and waggled them, indicating that I was to follow him. I did, and the huge henchman followed me.
McPherson opened the door I hadn't made it to, and the three of us walked out of the long, white room. We were inside a huge warehouse -- as I looked back, I saw the room was nothing more than a box built against the warehouse's back wall. The walls on either side of us were lined with sleek, black pods, each about two meters high and a meter wide.
"Sensory deprivation pods," McPherson answered my unasked question. "Each one contains a single human, undergoing extensive hypnotherapy."
"There are people in there?" I said.
"Of course, young man. Everyone in town has spent some time in these, not that they're aware of it," McPherson told me.
The girl, I realized -- a deadeye one second, skipping along the walk the next. She'd been programmed. Kid didn't have any clue what she'd done. The waitress, the Sheriff's deputy -- all way too polite, because they were programmed to be. I'd heard of the North Koreans using something similar in the war, but I hadn't believed it then. I was starting to believe it now, though.
"Come on, come on. Don't fall behind," McPherson snapped. "More to see."
We walked for a good two hundred yards -- rows of pods on either side of us, stacked three high. I estimated there were easily a couple hundred of them. McPherson opened another door at the other end of the warehouse -- another room built into the wall, this one much bigger than the one I'd woken up in. I followed him inside, and we were in a long, brightly lit corridor with large, windowed rooms on either side. A lab.
Inside the first room, the one on my left, I saw several extremely fit people running on treadmills. They looked like they were running faster than anyone should be able to -- a digital display behind one of the runners read "37 mph." In the room on my right, a man was bench-pressing a cartoonishly large amount of weight, enough that the metal bar in his hands bowed slightly. Neither he nor the runners were even breaking a sweat.
"Enhanced training. With the right amount of suggestion and pharmaceutical help, these people can train 22 hours a day. Just an hour of what they're doing would probably kill an Olympic athlete. We've got recovery time down to almost nothing," McPherson explained, smiling proudly as he led me down the hall.
The next room I saw was an operating room. Two doctors were standing over an unconscious man, one working on his right arm, another working on his head. I could see from a video screen facing the hall that the second doctor was inside the man's brain, placing something silver and shiny in his gray matter.
"Of course, the implants help, too. Nothing so crude as those digits the Army gave you to replace your missing fingers," McPherson said, nodding at the robotic prosthetics on my left hand -- apart from the skin grafts and physical therapy, they were the only attempt the Army had made to fix the damage. "No, our Chinese friends developed these. Some of our people brought them back at the end of the war, and we improved on them."
"You mean the CIA?"
"Oh, no, young man. The CIA couldn't find its ass with satellite recon. We're not. . . affiliated with the U.S. Government. Or any government, to be honest."
"But you had my Army file, my criminal record."
"Hacked. And shockingly easy to do, too."
That bothered me. I was no fan of the government -- after the War, how could I be? Still, I would have felt better somehow if this was in their hands instead of this grinning asshole's.
"So what's the point of all of this?"
"You're a smart boy. You probably have some idea. But I'm afraid I can't tell you -- not yet. Not until you join up."
"Yeah. That's. . . that's not too likely, Chief."
"Really? Your friend Ryan Bell was only too happy to join up. But perhaps I should let him tell you," McPherson smiled.
"Where is he?" I rumbled, taking a step towards McPherson.
"Wrong direction. He's been walking behind you throughout our conversation."
I turned around, but saw only McPherson's grim henchman behind me. At a signal from McPherson, the big guy pulled his hood back.
It kind of looked like Ryan's face. Maybe his younger brother who wasn't overweight, who didn't have bad skin and crippling social problems. And the eyes weren't Ryan's -- the big guy's eyes were cold, dead. Ryan's were expressive -- often too expressive, like the man himself.
Only Ryan didn't have a brother. He was the only child of a smothering mother, the one whose funeral he'd left Dallas to attend. This. . . this person wasn't Ryan. I could see in his eyes that this man didn't have a clue who I was.
"Nice try, McPherson. This guy doesn't even look that much like Ryan Bell," I told him.
"Oh, it's your friend, all right. Honed to the peak of his physical potential, his memories encrypted and submerged. He's programmed to watch my back and silently obey, but I can program him to do anything -- soldier, sleeper agent, janitor. He can be anyone, including. . . well, watch."
McPherson locked eyes with his henchman, then held up one hand with his ring finger bent in.
"Gamma Seven Zero Seven Delta. Command Line: Amsterdam Gold Fourteen. What is your name?" McPherson said.
"My name is Ryan Bell," the man said, blinking rapidly. He looked over at me then, and broke into a huge, goofy smile. Now he looked like Ryan. Almost.
"Andy! How the hell are you, man? What are you doing here?"
"You called me, Ryan. Four days ago."
"I did? I don't remember that. Damn, bro, it's good to see you!"
Ryan reached out and clapped me on the shoulder, and I think I smiled. I know I felt like smiling.
"Yeah, it's good to see you too, man. Jesus, Ry, what the hell have you gotten yourself into here?"
"I'm. . . well, it's tough to explain, man. After my mom died, I thought about coming back to Dallas, but aside from you, there was nothing for me there. There was nothing for me in North Dakota at my mom's, either. There was really nothing for me anywhere. I came this close to just eating a shotgun shell," Ryan sighed.
"Come on, man, it can't be that bad," I said.
"It ain't that good, either. But turns out I didn't even have the balls to kill myself. So I got back in the car and started driving. Met a lady at a bar in Sioux City -- she told me about this place and brought me here, and I joined up."
"Joined up for. . . what, exactly?"
"That's easy, man. We're --"
"Jericho Four One One Seven Foxtrot. Command Line: Beijing Crimson Four Five," McPherson rattled, quickly cutting Ryan off. Ryan went rigid, standing up and staring straight ahead.
"What is your name?" McPherson asked.
"My name is no one."
"Excellent. Resume overwatch, please."
Ryan -- or whatever he was now -- took a step back and stood up to his full height. Gone was the guy who collected action figures and posed them around his crappy little office at Grace Baptist, and back was the vacant-eyed killer who'd knocked me across a room just minutes before.
"Sorry to cut that short, but Ryan isn't cleared to tell you anything more. I won't, either, unless you decide to commit."
"And if I don't commit?" I said, glaring at McPherson.
I hadn't even finished the question before I felt the barrel of a gun -- my own, I think -- pressed to the side of my throat. Ryan had moved faster than I would have believed -- again.
"Right. Well, that's a compelling argument, I suppose," I sighed. "Looks like I'm with you."
"Excellent choice," McPherson said, beaming.
It wasn't the fear of getting shot that made me agree, though. I'd been shot before. Hell, I've been dead before -- for three minutes on a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital table. I did it because. . . well, much as I hate to admit it, there's nothing to go home to. And my one friend in the world was already here. . . at least I'd get to talk to him sometimes.
"So," McPherson said, winking as Ryan lowered the gun, "One eye, eh? How's that working out for you?"
© 2010 Nate Hoppe and Shawn Kupfer